What Works Best to Improve Retention – Analyzing and Designing an Individualized Approach or Focusing on Helping Students Be Successful?
In the December 10, 2021 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Aaron Basko authored an Insight article titled Have We Gotten Student Success Completely Backward? The article’s subtitle, “Instead of fretting over why students might leave, colleges need to focus on why they’ll stay,” provides an excellent lead-in for the points that follow.
Mr. Basko, an assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Lynchburg, cites the retention improvements made by two universities. Georgia State’s six-year graduation rate improvement from 32 percent to 54 percent was such a dramatic campus culture shift that a book, Won’t Lose This Dream: How an Upstart Urban University Rewrote the Rules of a Broken System, was written about it and published last year.
Salisbury University, where Mr. Basko worked as its chief enrollment officer, improved its six-year graduation rate by a much lower 4 percent during the same time period (2003-2014) as Georgia State. One of the big differences between the two initiatives was that Salisbury University’s was coordinated through a group of midlevel managers called the Retention Think Tank and Georgia State collaborated with the Education Advisory Board (now EAB).
Mr. Basko writes that Georgia State’s innovative practices of building freshman learning communities, supplemental instruction, and retention grants have become common among other colleges and universities in the decade-plus period since Georgia State implemented them. EAB, the consulting firm utilized by Georgia State, has been at the heart of these changes and often advises other colleges in ways to improve student success through data mining, building retention platforms, and hiring student advising teams.
The initiatives that Mr. Basko and his colleagues recommended and implemented at Salisbury University were based on two principles: 1) change students’ behavior by nudging them toward helpful practices like selecting a major on a timely basis or registering for a full load of credits, and 2) remove barriers to success by changing internal policies that work against students.
While each of these two institutions experienced improvements in student retention, Mr. Basko notes that higher education institutions are not making progress collectively. He cites two statistics that have not changed in the last decade, notably, that one-third of all college students leave their institution after one year and one-fourth of students leave higher ed altogether each year. He questions how institutions with scarce resources (staff and money) can expect to make progress in a field that utilizes tech-intensive solutions to improve retention.
Fortunately, Mr. Basko is not like the canary who sings in the coal mine. He cites the findings of the Gallup-Purdue Index also referred to as “The Big 6 for Student Success.” This study polled over 30,000 students and correlated on-time graduation career engagement, and overall well-being to whether students had been exposed to a set of six experiences in college such as faculty who cared about them and got them excited about learning, a project or internship where they could apply what they were learning, a mentor, and high involvement in extracurricular activities
Mr. Basko credits a colleague of his at Lynchburg who summarized the findings of the study as follows: “Gallup shows us that students need two basic things to feel like they belong. They need to know that someone on campus has their back, and they need a chance to do something really meaningful to them at least once a week.” Mr. Basko reacts with incredulity that the solution for improving retention could be so simple as “making sure every single student has a reason to stay and can articulate what that reason is.”
Citing numerous reasons for students failing to persist such as financial, academic, social, family, fit, mental health issues, Mr. Basko writes that there are too many possibilities for problems and colleges are unable to fix all of them. He postulates what if colleges help students find the positives that outweigh the negatives?
Rather than design a complex and cumbersome data platform to identify red flags and tailor solutions, Mr. Basko suggests that positive solutions can be accomplished with existing faculty and staff. Faculty can give students long-term projects, get to know them personally, and help them engage with the classroom material. Student-development staff can help by assisting students to identify or find their meaningful activities. He concludes by writing that there are many reasons why students choose to leave a college, but it often only takes one good reason for them to stay.
As someone who has researched and written about tactics and techniques for improving student retention (campus-based and online) for nearly two decades, I think Mr. Basko is on to something. His proposal, while simple, is not that different than the Community of Inquiry Framework for online courses developed by researchers more than two decades ago. The CoI Framework “represents a process of creating a deep and meaningful learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive, and teaching presence.” The illustration below shows how these three presences interact to create the learning experience.
Learning is the universal expected outcome of educating students. Mr. Basko’s ideas are very similar to a process that was identified to improve student engagement in online courses when students’ access to technology and faculty experiences teaching online courses were much more limited.
I can attest to the success of utilizing the Community of Inquiry Framework in online course design at APUS. I can also attest that engaging students in meaningful activities improve retention, even for part-time, working adult students who are taking online courses.
When creating mission statements for non-profits and for-profits was trending, I read guidance about the need to keep the key points of the mission at five or below so that all constituents could remember them. Having an educational mission to keep students engaged academically and presented with meaningful experiences seems like a goal that faculty and staff could embrace.