Reengineering Retention

Colleges need to focus on the right strategies for their institutions, not satisfying bureaucratic targets, writes Christopher B. Nelson.

August 25, 2014

In the hope of improving American higher education, President Obama set a goal in 2009 of improving college degree attainment rates from 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020. This represents a 50 percent increase in attainment rates. This does not seem to me to be an outlandish objective. Indeed, we accomplished just such a 50 percent improvement at my college over an eight-year period. It happened by accident, but we learned something from it about the kinds of things that might help one meet such a goal intentionally. Here is the story.

It happened “by accident” because we did not set out to reduce attrition or increase graduation rates. Instead, we fixed things at the college that were not working well or were broken. It was an ad hoc process, with no particular order. Indeed, progress was often slowed for want of adequate funding. But with a few years’ attention to improving conditions for living and learning, we suddenly discovered we had another problem to address: We had a larger student body than we had intended because fewer students were leaving. As problems go, this was a nice one to have.

Let me give examples of the kinds of changes that produced this happy result.

  • We repaired physical facilities that had fallen into disrepair through petty acts of vandalism. And we found ways to increase student self-policing, which led to greater student pride in their campus facilities.
  • Since freshmen, as a general rule, were responsible for the largest portion of misbehavior on campus, we increased upper-class presence in freshman dorms, doubled the number of adult senior residents, and built new dormitories to bring back to campus a larger percentage of upperclassmen.
  • There were parts of the academic program where our students needed more help than they could get in class. So we established a formal group of paid student mentors to help individuals with their classroom studies.
  • Medical problems were the single greatest cause of students' leaving during the academic year. So we improved the quality and number of our medical, nursing and counseling staff.
  • We added a substantial competitive paid internship program that allowed students to build their own internships over the summer. This helped to greatly decrease the anxiety among upperclassmen about their future job prospects.
  • For students who felt the need to leave for financial reasons, we established a crisis fund, from which they could seek up to $3,000 to tide them over through an emergency.

These examples may sound familiar to experienced campus program administrators. But my point is that every college is going to have a different problem to solve at a different time. Each campus community has a better sense of itself and its needs than someone from outside. The only way we can improve student retention substantially is to support a wide range of self-identified improvement efforts at each college and university.

Every change identified above had a cost attached to it, sometimes quite significant. We did not spend our scarce resources on measuring the retention effects of each program. Instead we continued to invest in programs and improvements that our students and faculty told us would be helpful and good in themselves. Higher retention rates seem to have been an inevitable byproduct.

What we could have used was a start-up grant to help us test ideas before building them into our operating budget. Fortunately, funds were available to us from private sources. But imagine the impact that a grant program could have on such efforts — a program designed not to provide solutions from above but to support individual campus efforts toward meeting President Obama’s 2020 college completion goal.

Here is an idea for such a program that would be simple to administrate and extremely helpful, especially to the smaller institutions across the country that are the front-line providers of educational opportunities to first-generation college students and the seriously disadvantaged. The Department of Education could make a block grant to one of our national college presidential associations, or to the various state associations.

I imagine some of these associations would be eager to help ease the burden on both the department and the colleges in administering such start-up or incentive-based programs for their members, allowing member institutions to apply for such grants as would help achieve the purposes I have described.

I think it is bad public policy to have institutions breaking their backs to chase government money. Instead, government money should be following the need and investing in the efforts that local administrators and teachers believe will help keep their students in school, or better yet, investing in the programs that are already working to achieve the president’s objectives.


Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis.


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