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The enrollment at many higher education institutions, whether public or private, is declining. A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that overall enrollment in higher education, in fact, decreased in each of the last three fall terms. And now the COVID-19 pandemic has added additional unwanted pressures.

Of course, the data will vary depending on the sector and student populations served, but maintaining and increasing student enrollment remains a concern for the vast number of institutions. And while we must certainly focus on developing successful recruitment programs, we must also double our efforts to retain current students and help them complete their degrees.

In his 2012 book, Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action, Vincent Tinto highlighted that improving student retention is primarily a question of creating and supporting classroom (curricular) engagement. And, indeed, such engagement in the classroom, which relies on faculty-student relationships, is fundamental to student retention. Earning poor grades will almost inevitably lead to low retention.

But we must not minimize co-curricular learning if our goal is to address many of the academic, social and economic issues that threaten student retention. Co-curricular experiences encourage students’ engagement in ways that directly and indirectly shape their degree completion and postcollege success.

Those experiences can significantly increase student retention -- whether in person, online or blended -- if institutions make a strategic effort to establish clear co-curricular pathways that support student success.

What are co-curricular pathways? Similar to guided pathways that lead to students’ matriculation and degree completion by sequencing classes, co-curricular pathways intentionally align such programs and services toward specific goals and learning outcomes. Co-curricular pathways consist of: (1) high-impact experiences, (2) scaffolded learning and (3) ideals of student success that help students to shape and reach their academic and professional goals.

How can co-curricular experiences be meaningful for students’ academic and professional development? Part of the answer lies in involving students in high-impact educational practices, a term many people know through the work of George Kuh and the National Survey of Student Engagement. High-impact practices are learning experiences that have been proven to enhance college success, especially among low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students. Common high-impact experiences include learning communities, undergraduate research and internships. Depending on its strategic goals and expertise, each institution will want to offer a distinct set of high-impact practices that fit their students’ needs.

But designing and establishing high-impact practices is only one part of creating co-curricular pathways. We must align those practices in a scaffolding manner where students learn skills and knowledge toward specific learning outcomes and postcollege success indicators. In their 2019 podcast “Co-curricular Pathways: Building a Better Student Experience in Higher Education,” Annemieke Rice and Moira Phippen describe how co-curricular pathways are institutional structures that outline steps for student growth and achievement. Rather than students serendipitously participating in high-impact practices --through, for instance, receiving a promotional email to join a program -- establishing co-curricular pathways requires institutions to be mindful of how one high-impact practice connects to another to support student learning and growth. Creating such pathways requires building and maintaining a chain of interrelated high-impact experiences, ideally starting with first-year and other new incoming students.

The learning outcomes of a co-curricular pathway should also reflect each institution’s specific strategic mission and goals. Whatever that mission and those goals may be, any resulting initiatives should inspire the creation of particular co-curricular pathways. Doing so helps to legitimize and support pathway programming, both intellectually and financially. For example, making a case for why an institution should invest in a co-curricular pathway is more straightforward if that pathway aligns with an institution’s strategic goals and student profile. Such a strategic alignment also allows the evaluators of co-curricular pathways to measure pathway success in direct relationship to specific institutional aims and enrollment forecasts.

With the establishment of co-curricular pathways, an institution can be in a stronger position to identify, address and evaluate the academic, social and economic issues that affect students’ persistence inside and outside classrooms. The addition of co-curricular pathways can empower institutions to offer structured guidance within degree programs, such as guided pathways, while also providing structured engagement and learning beyond those programs.

The establishment of co-curricular pathways also supports the use of additional student engagement tools, such as co-curricular transcripts. Some of the sharpest criticisms of co-curricular transcripts concern how people determine their value, mainly because some student affairs professionals and faculty members do not evaluate co-curricular experiences based on grades. However, because each program or service within a co-curricular pathway has specific learning outcome goals, co-curricular pathways help students, staff members, faculty members and eventually employers to understand the larger narrative behind co-curricular transcripts.

Clarke University is an example of how co-curricular pathways can align with co-curricular transcripts, student learning and postcollege success. To create a holistic experience for students, Clarke students are expected to participate in curricular and co-curricular experiences as they work toward degree completion. Those experiences are tracked and based on institutional learning outcomes, such as spiritual growth, communication and professional preparedness. Through this pathway, Clarke requires students to combine academic and professional knowledge and skills in order to graduate and become career ready. This institutional arrangement empowers students to have an improved learning path during their studies, which can help with student retention while also giving more credence to the value of a degree from their institution.

When I reflect on student retention within colleges and universities, especially during a time when COVID-19 is challenging and redefining higher education, I often consider how the various current and emerging co-curricular initiatives align with student success. Through this reflection, similar to many student affairs professionals, I create co-curricular maps, mentally and physically, that I can use within my work with students.

But it is through the formal and systemic establishment of co-curricular pathways that higher education institutions can interact with students with more focus both in person and online -- especially first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students, who may not know that specific experiences can be designed for their academic and career success. Retention inherently depends on structure and engagement, and co-curricular pathways can provide a vital institutional structure for creating engaging experiences for students of all academic, social and economic backgrounds.

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