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A row of desks in a common study area with large floor-to-ceiling windows; seven students sit studying at the desks, either independently or in groups.

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In the thirty years since Vincent Tinto published Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, colleges and universities have been examining, reexamining and even reimagining the factors contributing to student retention. The resulting picture has remained highly complex, making it imperative that each institution custom design a strategic plan as there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Today, as declining enrollments are combined with an increasing number of first-generation and underprepared students, improving retention has become an even higher priority at many institutions, especially those identified as less selective or nearly “open admission.” (Student retention at selective and highly selective institutions continues to be viewed primarily as a function of the admissions process.)

Unfortunately, efforts to improve retention at the less selective institutions often leave administrators disappointed and frustrated. Those responsible for improving student retention have much to benefit from recognizing that all activities implemented to improve retention contain pitfalls that can waste time and resources or lead to a path that fails to deliver results. Following are some of the most common reasons institutions are not achieving their retention goals:

Lack of a Comprehensive Strategy

Research and experience clearly show the complexity and interrelatedness of various elements that impact student retention. Therefore, changes in one area, for good or for bad, can enhance or inhibit the impact of other changes. For example, gains made by enhancing the delivery of tutoring services can be reduced by changes in financial aid policies or athletic programs.

To avoid, or at least cushion, the adverse effects that may result from changes in unrelated areas, it is necessary to develop a comprehensive, campus-wide retention strategy. While this is not always welcomed, as the division between academic and student affairs is sometimes as entrenched as the “separation between church and state,” neglecting to do so is certain to hamper retention efforts.

Anywhere activities and programs work in isolation, decisions or processes elsewhere on campus can undermine their work. This can create the perception that initiatives failed when in reality they were making good progress. This also explains why even the “best practice” with a strong track record at other institutions may not produce the expected results.

Confusing Student Success With Retention

Student success is often confused with retention, and because there is significant overlap between the two, administrators are tempted to think of them interchangeably. However, their differences become apparent when financial resources expended to support student success have little or no corresponding increase in retention.

Any attempt to increase student success is, of course, a high-value activity that should be encouraged at every opportunity. After all, student learning is the university’s core function and any measure that improves achievement should therefore be a priority. However, it is important to realize that these efforts do not necessarily translate into increased student retention. For example, hiring teaching assistants for a course such as organic chemistry is something to consider, but it is not a high-impact practice for increasing retention and may even have little impact. Students who struggle or fail a course at that level have already shown themselves to be academically capable and generally do not withdraw from college. They may need to change their major, but there is not a direct impact on retention unless the new major requires transfer to another institution.

Additionally, students succeeding in their courses don’t necessarily remain at the institution: In fact, their achievements may even make it possible for some to transfer to their first-choice college. Therefore, it is in the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between student success and retention where the key to improving outcomes is found. To better understand this relationship, the question to ask is, “How can we turn student success into increased retention?” Framed as such, administrators can focus on which actions are more likely to result in improving overall retention.

Trying to Build on a Weak Foundation

To be successful, any comprehensive strategy will depend on the strength of the foundations already in place. These foundations include, but are not limited to, an effective advising program and a program of academic support appropriately designed to meet the needs of students at a specific institution.

To make it possible for these programs to function at the highest level, another fundamental component is a robust early alert system, as even the most effective support services require a mechanism to identify and target the students who have the most to gain.

Assuming even an exemplary foundation of support programs is in place, there are still obstacles to having enough information to know which students are having difficulty in specific classes. Having that information as quickly as possible significantly increases the likelihood that the students who most need assistance to make satisfactory academic progress will be able to utilize the support programs available.

Underestimating the Potential of What Already Exists

Investing time and resources to improve the quality of existing programs and services can be the quickest and most efficient path to improving retention. Before investing in new initiatives, it is best to ask, “Are the programs and services already in place operating at a high level of quality?” The next question to ask is, “Are the programs and services being utilized to their capacity?

Having answers to these and other similar questions can prove more productive than introducing new initiatives.

Depending on New Initiatives to Achieve Retention Goals

While there is nothing inherently ineffective about new initiatives, they are just not the most reliable place to start. Typically, it can take up to three years before institutions realize the potential of a new program or initiative, so there is much more to gain by identifying the existing programs and services where improvements can result in more immediate gains.

The call for something new can be quite motivational and the language of innovation attracts the most attention in a college community. Unfortunately, new initiatives are often implemented to compensate for one or more foundational programs not operating at capacity. And if high-quality supports are not already in place in existing programs, they are not likely to be built into new initiatives either.

Making Retention a Priority as the Result of a Budget Shortfall

Working to improve retention as a solution to a budget shortfall, though at times necessary, too often proves disappointing. Once the budget is stressed to the degree that increasing retention becomes necessary, it is already late in the process and some promising options will require too much time to implement with a high degree of quality.

Perhaps most concerning is that budget pressures encourage short-term thinking, while a budget crisis assures it. Attempting to solve immediate financial issues often creates more challenges for retention in the near future, some of which will likely become systemic.

Loss of Focus on the Goal

Competing issues in today’s complex universities abound and retention can wrongly be seen as just another one of the concerns vying for attention and resources. But student retention is a symptom of many factors and not an “issue” in the same way as increased student cheating or pressure to increase faculty research grants. Viewing retention as just another issue makes it possible to put it aside in deference to more pressing problems. This can go on for years as administrators assert the importance of student retention at the fall convocations, but make little progress as they divert their attention to more immediate concerns.

Assuming That a Good Idea Will Work … Everywhere

Initiatives designated as “best practices” are often adopted because they worked at other institutions. The term itself can create the impression that these initiatives will result in similar outcomes regardless of where they are applied. This is far from the truth and too often ends in disappointing results.

Leaders should pause before implementing a “good” idea, as there are many reasons why even initiatives with a sound record at other institutions will not bring the needed results. Even programs hailed as a “best practice” do not work in isolation and will depend on the capacity and quality of the foundations already in place. An effective program design will not bring positive results if it does not have adequate support, is poorly administered or does not have qualified professionals staffing it.

Nevertheless, each year brings promising publications about new programs and initiatives that improved retention at institutions around the country, and it is not surprising that some leaders will prematurely embrace these new programs. However, it is important to consider that these programs and services were designed to meet the needs specific to another institution. It is also important to inquire about the relationship of the authors of these publications to the institution and whether they have the necessary objectivity. Was the publication produced by the public relations department at the college? Was the increase in retention truly a result of the proposed initiative? How were the results measured? These and other questions need to be answered before making any serious commitment of time and resources.

Failing to Recognize the Importance of Academic and Career Advising

Academic and career advising is perhaps the most effective component of a retention strategy. Despite this potential, advising programs are administered with a large degree of inconsistency and can be surprisingly neglected in efforts to improve retention outcomes. Beyond missed opportunities to improve retention and student success, the lack of a formal advising program or poorly administered services could quickly erode any gains made in other areas.

Creating a Retention Task Force

When retention becomes a factor affecting the budget, one of the most appealing options is the creation of a campus-wide task force. This sends the message that the administration is serious about improving student retention and creates buy-in and shared responsibility for the outcomes.

However, by its nature, the work of such a committee is inefficient. When timely, immediate progress is needed, the work of a task force is too costly to make it a first step.


In efforts to improve retention, university leaders should apply the concepts of continuous quality improvement even when yearly goals have been achieved. While much of the day-to-day work in this regard goes unrecognized, consistent attention to building and maintaining strong foundational programs and the capacity to respond to emerging needs will pay a high dividend. Furthermore, achieving retention goals consistently makes it possible to focus on the many issues that require immediate attention, like cheating scandals and student parking.

Thomas J. Thomas, now retired, formerly served as dean of University College at Wilkes University and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Tri-State Consortium of Opportunity Programs.

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