Developing Effective Retention Programs For Colleges

One of the things that many colleges don’t realize is that I’m already on their retention team. While I say this somewhat jokingly, I’m actually quite serious. Very often I am behind the scenes, unknown to them, working with their students so they can stay at their school and ultimately reach graduation. In some cases I do coordinate with the school, but that is often limited by the student’s own desire for contact. What I do get to have that most campus retention staff do not is cross-college experience. I’ve been able to see both helpful and unhelpful things done by colleges at the policy, classroom, and intervention levels that can affect overall student retention.

Proper Training And Mindset Of Retention Staff

One of the stories that I tell is about a “retention professional” that I met who was actually looking for a college for one of her own children. She kept saying how impressed she was with the “retention rates” of the schools she was considering, and when she named them, I was puzzled because I was well aware of those less than remarkable figures. So, I asked her what “retention rate” meant, and she replied “the percentage of students who stay in school there.” Of course, this was wrong. For the record, the U.S. Department Of Education’s definition of college retention rate is what percent of students return to begin their second year at a particular college, not how many students remain enrolled overall. In my work I know that “retention rate” can be practically a meaningless metric. Why? Because the pattern I’ve observed is that a college will often allow a student to return and begin classes in the fall even if they in their second term of academic probation. The countless emails I receive about sophomores who were academically suspended or dismissed at the end of their third term shows what really happens. Not only should retention staff understand the actual definition of what they purport to deal with, they must understand the dynamics and many “why’s” related to it. Why would a student do poorly? Why didn’t they seek help? Why did it get so bad they couldn’t stay at our school? The Academic Underperformance® phenomenon that I have been studying and writing about answers many of those questions.

In light of the above story, if you are a Director of Admissions or Retention, you should never assume that your staff knows even the basics. If you asked them “who is more at risk of not finishing college, boys or girls?” would they know the correct answer, or just give you a pensive guess? In order to keep students in school, and to determine which are likely succeed, those acting to help them do so must be aware of the patterns and risk factors, not just survey them for their opinions about dorm improvements or meal plan changes. It is a student’s academic performance and GPA that allows them to remain at their college, so understanding of what can affect it becomes primary. I’ve seen countless instances where a student loved their school and wanted to stay, yet was forced to leave due to bad grades. Effective retention programs begin with staff who understand the patterns, trends, issues, and risk factors pertaining to how and why students can work below their academic potential, even when all signs initially pointed to their doing well.

Identifying Points Of Decision And Action

Colleges spend inordinate amounts of time and money trying to find then attract the right kinds of students, and an initial admissions review can identify seemingly good additions to a school. But history teaches that some objectives are easier to take than they are to keep. Traditional predictors can break down, and those expected to succeed later may not. There’s been a progressive sentiment for questioning the usefulness of SAT or ACT scores as predictors of overall college performance, and while a student’s high school grades may be more representative of their abilities, I’ve seen that they may not be a good predictor either. I’ve worked with many students who scored in the top percentiles of standardized tests and graduated with a 3.8 GPA or better from well-ranked high schools who later outright failed in the college environment. This inconsistency can make decisions about which students to accept, or which to monitor once enrolled, very perplexing. The problem is one of “predictive validity,” which implies that an assessment or metric can accurately predict a future state. The flaw in the predictive power of traditional high school metrics, like grades and SAT scores, is that it assumes the high school system is representative of college: Essentially that high school is a simulation of college. But it’s not, and the two systems can be so different from each other in fundamental ways that predictive rules can go awry.

The juncture of shifting to a new system can introduce many new “intervening variables,”or cause pre-existing positive ones to be suddenly removed. For example, I’ve worked with students whose strong academic performance during high school actually became what I call “Structure Dependent.” They were able to function well in the highly structured environment of high school in which adults were always present, where they were constantly monitored, and parents oversaw them after school. Once they hit college they realized that they lacked the critical skill of Self-Directedness so their grades dropped, sometimes catastrophically. In short, they never developed the ability to work without supervision, so when it came time to do so they were at a terrible disadvantage. Being aware of the dynamics of when these initially “expected to succeed” students earn bad grades later can help strengthen intervention and retention efforts immeasurably. There are distinct patterns and predictable sequences of events when students begin to work below their potential, and this has allowed me to catch problems early before they get worse. This knowledge can also to help sharpen admissions thinking as well as suggest preventative efforts to re-define the current but often inadequate definition of “college preparedness.”

Multi-Systemic Retention Efforts

When I look from my college work toward the high school system I can see that retaining students during college begins there. The regrettable fact is that some secondary systems, especially middle-class or better ones, evolve an “acceptance” mentality in students and families. They set their primary high school concerns as grades, taking advanced courses, maximizing scores on standardized tests, and having many extracurricular activities as showing “college preparedness.” Students and parents become enamored of brand name schools and almost see them as glorious travel destinations. I am often contacted by parents one or two semesters in to the school year who proudly tout their student’s high school achievements, then meekly add that he or she is now failing in college. They may even say that “the school did nothing” to solve this, which immediately tells me they simply saw college as a continuation of high school. Colleges, then, unwittingly face a built-in handicap to student retention from the high school system. The priority set then is too often acceptance and names, not on the core skills that will allow a student to function independently in the very different higher education environment. An upgraded and more representative definition of “college preparedness” needs to be modeled by colleges to the precursory system as a key step toward effective retention.

Internally, higher education systems can very similar to each other by design, yet so different in practice. Some have surprisingly simple things that can be done to improve retention efforts once students enroll. For example, I’ve encountered policies at some schools that did not let top high school students that were admitted to receive the academic accommodations they received during high school continue. Their disability policies were so stringent that the student’s request was denied, so their previously good classroom performance didn’t continue. On the learning side, small things like ensuring Professors complete syllabi on time and keep course difficulty commensurate with the class level can support student performance. Some class formats I encountered for introductory level subjects proved so difficult that they could easily rank at the junior or senior level. Looking across systems or departments to see what can be done to enhance student class performance need not include substantial changes. Sometimes small ones can make a big difference.

Good retention efforts begin with knowledgeable and trained staff who understand not only the predictors of student success but the real-life patterns and reasons for why students do not perform up to expectations during college. Enhancements to retention can come in a variety of forms. Having quality intervention efforts, examining internal policy or systemic obstacles to retention, or even making small classroom-side changes can make a big difference and contribute to helping students reach graduation. Keep in mind that it’s a very long time from acceptance to graduation, and many things can cause students to do poorly and force them to leave their school. When this happens, no one wins. Students see their college dreams shattered, schools lose students, and the country loses valuable college graduates. It benefits everyone to understand why students students can have problems, which must be followed-up with good retention efforts to keep them there.

If you are with a college, please see our Faculty-Staff survey as well as our survey for Administrators about college problems and reasons for failure.