Current Knowledge on College Retention

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This paper provides analysis about what is already known regarding the issue of low college retention percentages.

Submitted: November 16, 2011

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Submitted: November 16, 2011




Current Knowledge on College Retention

Today it is nearly impossible to ignore the fact that colleges and universities are having difficulty in retaining students.  This issue has been discussed in numerous forms of press, and has also been addressed directly by the government, including the president of the United States.  Regardless of the form of press in which this issue is discussed, it is unanimously agreed that this is indeed a problem that must be addressed.

In a 2009 article from the New York Times by David Leonhardt, entitled “Colleges Are Failing in Graduation Rates”, the author quotes an economist, Mark Schneider, who “refers to colleges with such drop out rates as “failure factories”.  He attributes this problem in part to the “inadequate precollege education”.  In essence, he claims that increasing college retention, and thereby the number of college graduates, requires not only actions taken by colleges and universities, but also an increased effort by American’s education system as a whole.

Furthermore, the author stated that an additional problem was that colleges were not being held accountable for their failures; in this case, a failure is identified as students who enroll and attend school, but fail to graduate.  In fact, that article suggests that colleges and universities do not have many financial reasons to produce college graduates.  Besides accruing additional revenue the longer that a student is in school, it is also relatively cheaper for institutions of higher learning to pay one professor to teach a large lecture class, than it is to pay a professor to teach the upperclassmen courses which tend to have smaller class sizes.

Colleges and universities’ retention problems have also drawn the attention of College Board, which is a non-profit organization that is “committed to excellence and equity in education.”  In April 2009, College Board released its research findings and described the flaws in the way colleges address their retention problem.  The first discovery that the study made was that colleges often did not adequately invest in what was their most crucial task, ensuring that students remained in school and were educated.  Though the majority of the schools were found to have mandated that students meet with academic advisors at least once per term, many of these advisers were faculty members who were not directly compensated for their extra role as advisor.  Therefore, many of these advisors lacked the incentive to genuinely connect with their students and motivate them.  In addition, though 60 percent of the colleges had a designated retention coordinator, less than one-third of the coordinators served in full-time positions.  Furthermore, even fewer were given the authority to adjust the budget or to implement new policies or programs.

The College Board study also discovered that higher education institutions desperately need benchmarks.  Currently, colleges are operating under the false pretense that there are “one size fits all” solutions; however, studies have proven that students retention and attrition rates are different among schools of different sizes, as well as classification, as in public, private, or community college.  Therefore, the College Board suggests that additional surveys be conducted to establish a basis for which to accurately judge the status of a school’s retention rate, and the effectiveness of its endeavors to improve its rate.

The findings of the College Board study are clearly seen in the case of Western Michigan University.  On WMU’s website, the university describes its plans to improve its student retention.  Among the top of the list are vague tasks such as “appoint a recruitment and retention facilitator”, though it gives no details regarding the responsibilities and the authority that this individual will be given.  Furthermore, it mentions very generic changes including they will improve the advising process, endeavor to be more student-friendly, will make efforts to celebrate student achievement, and professors will be encouraged to become better acquainted with students and to go the “extra mile”.  Though these goals and changes sound remarkable, they all lack measurability and therefore appear to be inadequate.

However, further down the page there is mention of quantifiable goals.  Such goals include establishing a freshman to sophomore goal retention goal of 86 percent for the College of Aviation, a 12 percent increase.  Also, the College of Engineering has proclaimed “the freshman to sophomore retention rate will grow over the next four years to 75% retained within the college and 85% retained in the university; and six-year graduation rate will grow to 50%.”  Again, these goals seem to be improvements, but they also appear to be random estimates.  In addition, this school has decentralized its retention efforts allowing for each school to develop its own methods and goals.  According to College Board, schools like Western Michigan University must make realistic goals after benchmarking with similar schools and adopting practices that have proven to work on schools similar to their own.

Another approach to solving this problem comes from the Community College Journal of Research and Practice.  Though their perspective specifically considers community colleges, much of Linda Wild and Larry Ebbers’s research could be applied to colleges in general.  They identify one approach to be “developing indicators”.  They believe that a major component of low retention rates in schools is that students are unable to handle the course work due to the intensity of it and/or the necessity of balancing it with their work schedule.  Thus they propose that colleges should conduct studies in which students are grouped together by academic similarities or by the nature of their jobs, and that indicators are recorded and analyzed that may suggest how many credit hours students in a particular major are able to take; which subjects are likely to prove difficult if taken together; if a student works 30 hours a week, how many classes are they capable of handling; etc.  By tracking these indicators, colleges would be able to adjust their advising and curriculum accordingly.

The study also suggests that the schools create learning programs that require a commitment from students.  In other words, schools should create more programs that students can join that provide formal structure to the learning process and require students to study for predetermined amounts of hours a week.  These programs will increase the student’s engagement while providing a structure for him or her to benefit from.  Along with learning programs, the college should provide tutoring or supplemental learning programs to assist those students who may not grasp the information as easily.  Though the tutoring sessions typically target the at-risk students, the supplemental programs are traditionally for difficult classes and attempt to teach the information using an alternative approach as opposed to reiterating the in-class lesson.

Lastly, this study provided several additional steps that colleges and universities should make.  For example, it suggested that schools identify or recruit a qualified individual that has a broad-based understanding of the curriculum, student support, retention research, and clearly understands and is able to make the appropriate changes to achieve the retention goals of the school.  He or she then needs to ensure that the school’s retention goals are realistic based off of data collected, and that the practices that have been known to work in similar institutions or within particular departments of the college are implemented widely.  They also suggest that colleges examine their recruitment and admission policies and practices in case there are flaws in the type of individuals they are admitting into the university.  Finally, Wild and Ebbers suggest that the staff should be informed of the retention goals and trained as how to better serve the students; meanwhile their should be an early warning system so that at-risk students are identified early and efforts can be made to save the student.

Another reliable source in the higher education realm, the ACT, also conducted a study in hopes of determining how schools could combat the high levels of drop out rates.  In some ways, the ACT’s findings are in alignment with many of the other studies.  It first suggests that school’s should identify its students characteristics and needs, create organizational priorities that are in alignment with those needs, identify what resources it has available, assess other successful retention programs, and then, given all of that information, develop a comprehensive retention program.  It also advocates the need for an early alert system based on scores on college-entry exams, first semester GPAs, attendance records, and socioeconomic factors.  Lastly, it recommends that some form of performance evaluation be created by which the school can analyze its level of success and the cost of its plan.  In addition, the evaluation should provide strategies by which to address the problem if their initial plan fails.

Where the ACT’s study differs however is that it recommends that just as important as it is for the school to look into the academic factors causing the low retention rate, it is equally important for the institution to address the non-academic factors.  According to the study, these factors should be taken into “the design and development of programs to create a socially inclusive and supportive academic environment that addresses the social, emotional, and academic needs of students.”  The prevalent non-academic factors that appear to be most influential in a student’s success at college include “self-confidence, achievement motivation, institutional commitment, and social support.”  By using questionnaires and surveys to identify where students are in regards to categories like these, colleges can provide them with programs that specialize in helping people with these sorts of social issues.  The authors of this study, Veronica A. Lotkowsi, Steven B. Robbins, and Richard J. Noeth believe that by integrating the solution by addressing the non-academic factors as well as the academic factors, colleges stand the best chance of actually achieving sustainable improvements to their student retention programs.

Lastly, Stanford University Associate Professor Eric Bettinger, along with the help of his doctoral student Rachel Baker, have discovered that coaching has an important role as well.  According to Bettinger and his study, “the results are clear:  coaching had a clear impact on retention and completion rates.”  After observing groups of coached and non-coached students progress through college, he discovered that coached students had a retention rate that was 10-15 percent higher than non-coached students.  Amazingly, he also found this to be a cheaper approach.  For instance, he found that increasing financial aid by $1,000 increased persistence by 3 percentage points, whereas coaching, which cost nearly the same for two semesters, increased it by five percentage points.

In essence, all of these studies have found college retention to be a major issue requiring significant reformation by colleges and universities.  While all agree that there must be benchmarks, training, and accountability in a solution, some seem to also stress the importance of non-academic factors being largely influential.

Obviously, how to retain college students is not a topic that is often discussed in the classroom; however, retention is often discussed.  Professors often lecture on ways in which organizations can adjust in order to retain more customers and more employees.  This leads to an interesting question.  Despite college students being the customers of colleges and universities, is it necessary to tailor the approach to retaining college students in the model of retaining customers or employees.  Traditional customer related factors such as price, available products (majors), and quality of service are also very important to students.  Nevertheless, several factors that typically apply to employees are essential to students as well.  These factors include organizational culture, values, and reputation.  Ultimately, retention implies another business concept, customer satisfaction.  An organization’s ability to retain a customer is often a direct result of that customer’s satisfaction with that company and/or product.  In the educational setting, it is a reflection of the student’s satisfaction with the school’s culture, faculty, and the degree of education that he or she is receiving.

Improving student retention and satisfaction often requires some level of change.  Organization change is another complex business concept that inspires many theories.  Nevertheless, when colleges and other types of organizations commit to making changes, they typically also encounter several stages.  These stages include resistance, uncertainty, experimentation, transition, and integration.  Success in each of these stages is critical for a company to effectively implement change.

In addition to the traditional business concepts, many individuals are attributing the high drop out rates to the issues of inadequate high school education and low student engagement in college.  In fact, there have been several studies concerning the impact of student engagement and their retention.  One study conducted by The National Survey of Student Engagement found that “highly engaged students are more likely to reenroll in school the following year.”  This would suggest that schools should turn their attention to increasing student engagement, thereby increasing retention.  Likewise, a study by Paul D. Umbach and Matthew R. Wawrzynski found a strong correlation between a student’s level of engagement with faculty and the students’ persistence in school.

Ultimately, there have been a variety of opinions as to how to address the retention problem that is common in today’s institutions of higher learning.  Though it is possible that there is a one major cause of this problem, it is more likely that there is a combination of the factors that is responsible for the low retention.  However, much research is still needed.


Annotated Bibliography

"College student engagement." Gifted Child Today Spring 2009: 7+. Academic OneFile. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.


This article introduced the notion that “highly engaged students are more likely to reenroll in school the following year.”  This would suggest that schools should turn their attention to increasing student engagement, thereby increasing retention.


Hoover, Eric. "A Close-up Look at Student Coaching." Http:// Stanford University, 9 Mar. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2011.

This study revealed an entirely new potential solution to low retention.  It showed how non-academic factors could be addressed in an attempt to create an environment where students would feel comfortable.


"How Colleges Organize Themselves to Increase Student Persistence: Four-year Institutions." College Board (2009). Web. 11 Nov. 2011. .


In April 2009, College Board released its research findings and described the flaws in the way colleges address their retention problem.  Its flaws provided insight as to what problems have already been identified and what solutions are being considered.


Leonhardt, David. "Economic Scene - U.S. Colleges Are Failing in Getting Students to Graduate -" The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. .


Leonhardt attributes low retention to an “inadequate precollege education”.  In essence, he claims that increasing college retention, and thereby the number of college graduates, requires not only actions taken by colleges and universities, but also an increased effort by American’s education system as a whole.


Lotkowski, V., Robbins, S., & Noeth, R. (2004). The role of academic and non- academic factors in improving college retention: ACT Policy Report. Iowa City, IA: American College Testing, Inc.

The ACT’s findings were beneficial in that they confirmed the findings of several other studies.  However, it provided further insight and suggestions by introducing the notion of non-academic factors being important.

"Summary of College Retention Plans." Western Michigan University | A Top 100 National University. Web. 11 Nov. 2011. .


Western Michigan University provided me with an example of how schools are currently addressing their retention problems.


Umbach, Paul D. & Wawrzynski, Matthew R. “FACULTY DO MATTER: The Role of College Faculty in Student Learning and Engagement.” Research in Higher Education, Vol. 46, No. 2, March 2005 (Ó 2005) DOI: 10.1007/s11162-004-1598-1

This research provided new insight as to how the issue of student engagement impacts student retention.  It allowed an additional theory as to why retention is low, and how it might be addressed.

Wild, Linda, and Ebbers, Larry. "RETHINKING STUDENT RETENTION IN COMMUNITY COLLEGES." Community College Journal of Research and Practice 26 (2002): 503-19. Print.


Wild and Ebbers provided new insight in terms of how to address retention issues.  It also provided another basis to compare and contrast with other theories to determine if there was a pattern or if most theories were unique.



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