How to increase retention among college students has been researched for more than fifty years. The concept of students persisting from semester to semester, year to year, and from entrance to graduation is especially crucial in this economic time. Several studies are discussed here which focus on successful retention efforts on college campuses. Helping students feel like they belong to a community, first-year seminars, faculty development, developmental (remedial) courses, and learning communities have been shown to increase retention and are discussed below.
When it comes to win-win combinations, few are more beneficial than the relationship between student retention and higher education. With America facing an economic deficit and businesses folding in all directions during the Great Recession (2007-2009), being in college rather than in the workplace seemed to be the safest place for some people. However, simply being in college is not as easy as staying in college. Respectable high school grades and average standardized test scores allow entrance to some favorable institutions of higher education. Yet once each student says goodbye to his or her parents and begins to unpack, that student's future may depend less on what he or she does and more on what the institutions are doing. At some point, the responsibility of students persisting in college moves from the students to that of the college administrations.
Researchers study retention, journals report about it, and budgets are stretched to enhance it. Schools that do not retain students lose tuition dollars as well as the combined resources of instruction, housing, and support services that are spent on those students who are eventually lost to attrition. Conversely, students who are not retained lose the basic opportunities that higher education offers; for many, that means secure employment possibilities that are not a consideration for anyone lacking a degree. According to ACT (2007), about 40% of the students who enter college in any given year will leave before the second year begins, and only slightly more than a third will actually earn a degree (as cited in Fike & Fike, 2008).
While much effort is given to researching and reporting about retention, a 2004 study surveying over 1,000 colleges reports that fewer than half "have established an improvement goal for [the] retention of students from the first to second year" (Habley & McClanahan, 2004, p. 6). College and university administrators know how important student retention is -- if not for the students then certainly for their budgets -- yet making the necessary changes to increase student persistence has not become a priority. Many campuses put someone in charge of retention efforts, but that charge often comes without the budget, time, staff, or authority to actually make changes that improve retention (Hossler, Ziskin, & Gross, 2009, p. 6-7). Furthermore, it is ironic that the response to a college's success relying so heavily on student persistence is to put one person in charge of that task when several people fill the admissions' offices. In other words, it does not make much sense to get students to a school if only one person is in charge of keeping them there.
Why Students Leave
It is fair to say that some students should not be in college. Be it the wrong time or the wrong goal, college simply is not for everybody, and even the strongest retention program will not help this group persist. In contrast, there is another group of students who will be successful academically without any intervention; these students are generally ambitious and goal-oriented. In the midst of these two groups of students is a third category: the students who are considered "at risk" for early dropout. This category of students does not travel with a neon flashing sign announcing their precarious situation. As a result, it is essential for school personnel to try to predict what risk factors place them in danger of attrition.
Braunstein and McGrath (1997) conducted a study to do just that. Iona College, a private catholic school in New Rochelle, New York, experienced a decade-long trend in attrition, even though a focus on retention efforts had taken place -- a freshman experience course was organized, orientation sessions had improved, and a retention coordinator was hired, yet students were still dropping out. Most of the students who did drop out were academically weak, according to the study. The researchers concluded that
" the students who were retained showed higher high school grades, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, and first semestermgrade point averages than the students who were not retained. In one particular analysis, the first semester grade point average was the most significant predictor of retention. The grade point average for freshmen who were retained was 2.76 while the average for those who were not retained was 1.88" (Braunstein & McGrath, 1997, "Reasons Why").
In addition, the authors note that the students retained after the first year (of the study) had an average annual family income of at least ten-thousand dollars more than that of the students who were not retained (Braunstein & McGrath, 1997). This is not surprising, as students have always been dropping out of college for academic and financial reasons. However, the data does place an emphasis on the fact that these risk factors (low academic skill level and low income status) are combatable by institutions. Colleges who want students to persist can offer remediation, study skills assistance, and tutoring for weak students as well as offering financial aid and scholarship opportunities to low-income students.
In another study created to predict retention, DeBerard, Spielmans, and Julka (2004) administered surveys to the freshmen of a private northwestern U.S. institution. The surveys gathered information about risk factor variables, including academic history, demographics, drinking and smoking habits, coping skills, and social support availability. Students completed the surveys in the fall 1999 semester and were identified again the following year (fall 2000) to determine retention rates. Fifteen percent of the students completing the survey did not return the following academic year. While most of the variables showed a predictive ability for high academic achievement (such as strong social network, high SAT scores, and developed coping skills), only one was shown to actually predict retention: high school GPA. In other words, the students who were not retained after one or two semester shared a commonality: they had low high school grade point averages (DeBerard, Spielmans & Julka, 2004).
It is important to note that these two different studies indicate a common factor for student retention: students who are weak academically pose a risk for attrition. While not a neon sign, this is an indicator that colleges see well before students enter their campuses.
Intervention Strategies to Increase Retention
Many institutions require an introductory college course for new students. Whether it is called a freshman seminar, first-year experience, or first-year seminar (FYS) course, the class generally focuses on transition information to help new students adapt to life within the campus community. Many offer study skills instruction, class visits to various offices on campus, and instruction in some academic discipline. In many instances, the discipline topic selections are chosen by the student based on academic study preferences. Some colleges make the first-year experience course part of a learning community, meaning that it is offered in conjunction with other courses, all of which are taken by the same group of students. Other campuses offer the course in isolation. The goal is to assist students' transition to college, which in turn helps them persist.
Vincent Tinto, a professor of education at Syracuse University, has researched student persistence in higher education for more than thirty years. One of Tinto's theories of retention is that students will be much more likely to persist when they feel integrated into the college community both socially and academically (1975). Considering Tinto's integration model, Potts and Schultz (2008) studied the retention effects of students enrolled in a freshman seminar course that was offered within a learning community in the school's business department. Using a sample of 223 freshmen at a public undergraduate institution, students were randomly chosen to have the learning community, the FYS class in isolation, or no intervention. Students were identified as high risk based on off-campus living status during the...
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