Where Current Retention Efforts Fall Short


In this issue:

This year is seeing increased public and federal pressure on colleges and universities to improve completion rates, raising pressing questions of both policy (Will pressure on completion coinciding with cuts in state funding force public institutions to increase their selectivity and decrease access?) and practice (What efforts will move the needle on degree attainment? Who should lead them? How should they be funded?).

Yet despite the increased attention to the issue, relatively few institutions have adopted a campus-wide and adequately resourced initiative to improve student success and student persistence. Two factors appear to be holding institutions back from seeing significant gains in retention:

  • Under-investment in retention efforts, often due to uncertainty over the scope of the initiatives needed and over how best to allocate funds to them; and
  • Driven in part by that uncertainty, a reliance on one-off programs (often housed within one department and isolated from other offices)

What’s needed now is a rethinking of the costs of attrition (and the return on retention), data-informed decisiveness around investment in student success efforts, and a comprehensive look at how an institution can align its staff, its strategy (such as its admissions and recruiting plans), its programs (such as student support services), and its other resources (space, technology) to improve students’ academic performance and persistence.

Rethinking the Costs of Student Attrition

In evaluating the priority of a campus-wide retention initiative and assessing the investment required, it’s important to take a comprehensive look at the costs of student attrition. We spoke with Jane Wellman, the executive director of the Delta Cost Project, to learn more about the factors researchers are currently looking into when considering how to assign the cost.

The direct costs of attrition to the institution can include:

  • Losses in tuition revenue
  • Losses in auxiliary revenues
  • Losses in revenue from future alumni philanthropy (a student who doesn’t graduate is a lost opportunity to cultivate a future donor)
  • The additional cost of recruiting and enrolling the students who will fill the voided places of those who don’t persist
  • The cost of turning away other applicants in favor of admitting an applicant who then doesn’t persist
  • Losses in state subsidies that had been directed at students who then don’t persist

To that last point, the October 2010 “Finishing the First Lap” report by the American Institutes for Research found that nationally, only 60 percent of students at four-year colleges and universities graduate within six years, and that between 2003 and 2008, students at four-year institutions who did not persist into their second year accounted for:

  • $6.2 billion in state appropriations for higher ed institutions
  • More than $1.4 billion in state grants to the students
  • $1.5 billion in federal grants to the students

The institution also incurs indirect costs, less easy to quantify yet potentially quite weighty. These include the cost to the institution’s reputation, diminished public support, and increased calls for accountability.

In December 2009, Jobs for the Future and the Delta Cost Project developed a cost-return calculator that compares the cost of operating various academic programs with the benefits derived from increased student retention. The calculator is based on findings from the report, “Calculating Cost-Return for Investments in Student Success.”

Most Colleges are Under-Invested in Addressing Retention Issues

Despite widespread concern over student persistence, few institutions have made substantial investments of staff and budgetary resources toward retention efforts.

To learn more about the readiness for addressing retention efforts at colleges and universities, we turned to Don Hossler, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University Bloomington and the executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Hossler directs attention to several findings from “How Colleges Organize Themselves to Increase Student Persistence: Four-Year Institutions” (April 2009), a pilot study funded by the College Board and conducted by Indiana University’s Project on Academic Success and the University of Southern California Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice. The study found that while 60 percent of institutions do have an official directly accountable for managing, leading, and coordinating efforts to manage student success:

  • On average, the amount of time allocated to coordinating retention efforts is equivalent to one-third of a full-time position
  • Only 43 percent of the retention coordinators had the authority to create new programs
  • Only 25 percent of the retention coordinators had access to discretionary financial resources for use in funding new programs

Reviewing the findings, Hossler remarks, “Who would want to be the vice president of enrollment for an organization at which enrollment was only one-third of your time, and less than a quarter of you had a budget for it? Yet that is analogous to the situation faced by retention coordinators.”

The findings also indicate that although a growing number of institutions are collecting early-warning data on at-risk students, most do not design effective intervention systems to make use of the data they are collecting. For example:

  • 58 percent of institutions surveyed indicated they had policies in place for reporting midterm grades
  • Only 47 percent of institutions reported the practice of flagging courses that have a high DFW (drop/fail/withdraw) rate
  • 70 percent of institutions reported that they had minimal or no incentives for full-time faculty to serve as academic advisers

When asked about the barriers to larger investment in retention efforts, Hossler noted a common sense of paralysis that impedes planning. According to Hossler, the factors that paralyze institutions and prevent more effective efforts include:

  • The “checklist” problem — when a busy president or provost reviews the most recent monographs, articles, and book chapters that synthesize data on student persistence, in order to arrive at a checklist of practices (good academic advising, student activities that improve engagement, or incentives for faculty to take their students out for coffee); it’s too easy to look at that checklist and decide the institution is already doing everything needed
  • The resourcing problem — without a rigorous look at your institution’s own historical data to determine where you most need to invest effort, the problem of retention can appear enormous and amorphous, making the prospect of adequately allocating resources to a retention coordinator daunting; “When you can’t create a unit that has $500,000 to spend,” Hossler remarks, “the response is often inaction, but a small, strategically targeted initiative for a large campus may only need $15,000 to just get started”

Knowing Where to Start

To avoid this kind of paralysis, Wellman emphasizes the importance of analyzing the attrition patterns at your own institution — you need to know where attrition is occurring, why it is occurring, and how much it is costing you.

As for why your students are leaving, data from national studies alone is an insufficient guide for knowing what practices to invest in. You need to isolate root causes of attrition at your institution. Wellman advises adopting a suite of exit surveys and interviews. Even anecdotal research may allow you to isolate the most prominent trends at your institution:

  • Are more students leaving because of low academic performance?
  • Are more students leaving because they aren’t getting the courses they need on time?
  • Are more students leaving because of financial issues?

For example, if too many students are leaving because their academic performance is too low, start with reviewing your admissions policies or the way you screen students for placement (i.e., is your institution placing too many students who should be in developmental courses in credit-bearing courses?).

If too many students are leaving because they aren’t getting into the courses they need and their degree is taking too many years to complete, or because a growing percentage of your students are working full-time and have multiple commitments competing with their education, you may be able to solve some of the issues through flexible course scheduling, blended and online options, and accelerated programs. Such an approach would also require rethinking the availability and flexibility of your academic advising and support services.

In fact, whatever the root causes of attrition at your campus, addressing them will require a campus-wide effort.

Not Just a One-Off Initiative

In reviewing the literature and research on retention policies and practices, Academic Impressions has noted that many institutions tend to offer narrowly-focused programming, often centralized and siloed within one function on campus, such as admissions or student services, and often directed at improving rates for specific student populations. These approaches are valid and have a place in the efforts to retain and graduate more students, but a broader conversation of alignment needs to take place.

Driven by their mission, institutions need to define the experience and value they are offering to students. Then, recruitment strategy, organizational structures, student programming, academic policies, and incentives need to be aligned to support that experience and ensure the institution delivers on its promise.

To inform this issue of Higher Ed Impact: Monthly Diagnostic, we have spoken with college and university presidents, vice presidents, and thought leaders on retention issues to consider how best to:

  • Define your institution’s value proposition and unique student experience — see “Starting with Fit: Defining and Delivering the Unique Student Experience”
  • Align people, processes, and policies to ensure that student experience is delivered both in and out of the classroom — see “Designing the Student Experience: Building Bridges across Student and Academic Affairs”
  • Examine your academic policies and student support services to ensure that you remove unnecessary obstacles to students’ academic performance and momentum toward a degree — see “Delivering on the Promise: Removing Barriers to Student Success”
  • Ensure that you have an effective early-warning system in place — see “Identifying and Intervening with At-Risk Students”


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