Retention Strategy: What Holds Us Back?

Image of two students, one male, one female, crossing the finish line ribbon of college graduation.

by Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, Academic Impressions

Prevailing views on retention and student success have evolved significantly -- but often, our practices lag behind. To help close the gap, we interviewed several of the foremost experts on student retention, individuals who have made a demonstrable difference at their institutions and who will also be facilitating our annual Developing a Comprehensive Retention Plan conference in 2016.

Here is what W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, communication, and planning at Augustana College; Veronica Hipolito, dean of student services at Coconino Community College; and Margot Saltonstall, director of analytics & assessment for enrollment management & student affairs at Northern Arizona University, have to say about where institutions should be shifting their thinking -- and their efforts -- to support student persistence and completion.

Question #1: What Holds Us Back?

Elizabeth Hubbell. What do you think holds institutions back from pursuing more comprehensive retention planning? What are the missed opportunities if efforts remain siloed?

W. Kent Barnds. Too many institutions are reactive rather than proactive. Too many spend most of their energy related to retention in analyzing data after the fact and asking "Why did that happen?" I also think that too many colleges don't really understand that a comprehensive retention plan requires that they consider three big areas:

  • Pre-college experiences
  • In-college experiences
  • Cost and finance

There is a tendency, in my opinion, to focus on one of these areas (academically at-risk students) and really not pay sufficient attention to the other areas. Without an equal focus to the other two areas, you don’t really have a comprehensive or effective retention plan.

Margot Saltonstall. Often institutions do not have a comprehensive view of what they are doing across campus and for which populations. Starting with an inventory of your existing efforts can be useful.

​Veronica Hipolito. I don’t think it is a conscious decision, and it is a part our culture. We even describe our units as "divisions" at many institutions. I think that significant retention work occurs throughout the institution, and I believe greater success can be achieved when we weave these efforts together. Collaboration reduces duplication of efforts and can maximize resources for institutions with limited funds.

Margot Saltonstall. Another obstacle is often data. Without knowing how students are retaining and/or which groups might be struggling the most, knowing where to put institutional resources and energy seems like a shot in the dark.

Question #2: What's One Critical Step to Take?

Elizabeth Hubbell. What’s the one critical step you see that those leading retention efforts tend to overlook?

W. Kent Barnds. I think one of the most important areas that is often overlooked is calculating a return on investment for retention activities. Much like student recruitment, investments in retention programs often pay for themselves (and then some), but are too often considered expenses rather than investments. In my view, these are investments, and with the emphasis that public policy makers are placing on retention rates and persistence, being able to calculate ROI and understand net tuition revenue ​will be more important than ever before.

Margot Saltonstall: We need to move beyond a focus on "risky" students and identify groups that are not retaining optimally but don't grab your attention because they look "fine" when compared to the group that is retaining at the lowest rates.

For example, female students retain higher than male students, so they rarely appear as a low performing group at a glance. If you looked an average academically performing female group (GPA = 3.25-3.50, let’s say) and find that the group is retaining at 77% compared to an overall rate of 75%, you might not see that as a group that is doing poorly or could be improved. But if you knew that historically, female students have retained at 80%, then the lower-than-historical rate might grab your attention.

Another way to put it would be: don’t make the assumption that a higher than average retention rate for a subpopulation is good. Investigate to know where each group should ideally be performing, in order to assess who within the group is underperforming. In this way, you can avoid just seeing the lowest retaining groups as needing attention.

And that is important -- because it might be easier to bring up the retention of the average GPA females than to bring up one of your lowest performing groups.

Question #3: As Millennials and Post-Millennials Join Our Staff, What Can We Learn From Them?

Elizabeth Hubbell. More millennials and post-millennials are joining the higher-ed workforce. Given their unique experiences, do they think about retention differently? How might the younger members of an institution's workforce have valuable input for retention planning?

Veronica Hipolito. There isn’t one answer for retention, so it's important to take into consideration the ideas and feedback from your employees, regardless of age. Engagement of staff and faculty is essential in many retention efforts. Whether an individual is a seasoned employee or new professional, taking their perspective into account in planning and implementation is a crucial step.

W. Kent Barnds. Millennials are already pushing us to think about the in-college social experiences as essential ingredients to a successful retention plan. ​They are pushing us to think beyond traditional at-risk indicators like test scores, grades and socioeconomic background and also consider social fit, values, friend-making and purpose. They bring a refreshing and helpful perspective, and they can help us look beyond the typical for deeper and more meaningful indicators.

Margot Saltonstall. I hear from our partners in the online world that stopping out is common. Thus, the approach to retaining online students (who for us are older students) should include looking beyond who was here in the last term and who is not here in the next term. It should include more than just efforts to reduce attrition. Rather, we need a multipronged approach to re-recruiting those who left or stopped out a few semesters ago, as well as understanding better the plans and objectives of recently enrolled students.

Elizabeth Hubbell. Thank you all! I look forward to discussing this with you in more depth at Developing a Comprehensive Retention Plan in New Orleans this fall.