Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action

Vincent Tinto’s research related to student retention is well known among academicians.  His 1975 paper in the Review of Educational Research creating a theoretical construct of the major factors leading to student retention has been cited in hundreds, if not thousands of papers and publications.  Additionally, Tinto’s sociological construct of the college dropout influenced future researchers toward examining the cause of dropouts instead of blaming the victim.  In 1987, Tinto published Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition (and later reprinted a second edition in 1993). That book is particularly significant to me for several reasons. 

In 2004, the American Public University System (APUS) Board of Trustees elected Dr. Kate Zatz as a new board member.  As APUS’s newly appointed president, I visited Dr. Zatz who worked at Hudson County Community College in Newark, New Jersey.  We talked about a number of things during my visit and I asked her if she could recommend any publications about student retention.  She handed me a copy of Leaving College and told me that it was an excellent resource for reading about student attrition research.  I read it and distributed copies to others at APUS.  Later on, Leaving College and my interest in student retention would inspire my doctoral dissertation and subsequent research related to online student retention.  When I received a pre-publication notice for Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action a few months ago, I ordered a copy.

In the preface to Completing College, Vincent Tinto states that the goal of his book is not to develop a new theory of retention but to suggest a framework that institutions can utilize in applying policies and actions to improve retention and college completion.  Based on the quantity of dog-eared pages and highlighted paragraphs in my copy, I would say that he has accomplished his goal.

Tinto cites four conditions that must be present at colleges and universities in order to enhance retention and completion.  These four are expectations, support, assessment and feedback, and involvement.  Conveniently, he has organized a chapter of the book to discuss each of these conditions and provides case studies as well as references to research that support the effectiveness of actions in the areas that improve retention and completion.  Another chapter entitled “Administrative Action” provides policies and practices including investments, organizing for a focus on retention, and the timing of actions.  While he notes that some retention practices are effective throughout college, Tinto strongly advocates an institutional focus on the first year student for the most effective return on time and expenses invested.  A three step action plan for institutions is recommended.  The first step is for an institution to align and sequence courses and support courses so that success in one leads to success in the following course(s).  Next, faculty actions and interactions in the classroom are critical to student success.  Lastly, faculty development is critical to the institution’s retention efforts and must be included in a plan.

In the book’s final chapter, Tinto calls for institutions to keep a focus on their retention initiatives and not to let them fade away over time as leaders and participants move on to other responsibilities.  He writes that many institutions have retention projects but that few take them seriously (most include retention projects as just one more item on a long list of projects).  Tinto notes that for adult students in particular, success is measured one class at a time and that dropouts are not always dropouts until a number of years have elapsed (he recommends keeping a dropout in the system for nine years).

Similar to Leaving College, Completing College has two relevant appendixes at the back of the book.  Entitled “Retention and Persistence” and “Retention and Accountability,” these appendixes discuss the difficulty of measuring and defining persistence.  Tinto urges that no one rush to judgment without examining the attributes of students, the nature of their intent, as well as the types of institutions that they attend.  Disappointingly, but understandably, data is not presented related to persistence and completion rates for online institutions or programs nor for for-profit institutions.  While Tinto mentions that these results should be studied, he states that there are not enough reliable studies to make a meaningful comparison.  After discussing various initiatives related to accountability, Tinto states that none of them take into account student swirling (which I have written about before), double dipping, and transfer.  In the case of students enrolling at multiple institutions, Tinto states that this situation raises the issue of which institutions should be accountable and for what.

All in all, Completing College exceeds my expectations as a college administrator.  Vincent Tinto’s research subsequent to Leaving College provided him with the idea of constructing a framework that colleges and universities can use as a basis for action related to improving retention and completion.  The case studies and research cited are excellent examples of projects that worked in certain institutions and with certain students.  The appendixes are helpful for distribution to those on the outside who may still think that all college students are first-time, full-time freshmen who live on campus and who graduate in four years.  Improving retention and completion is a must if our nation is to return to its globally competitive position.  Vincent Tinto has capped his years of research with an excellent book for institutions to utilize if they are serious about improving retention.  I intend to order a few extra copies.

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