Student Success

STUDENT SUCCESS—Retention & Graduation

Student success is the first goal of any university and we must never lose sight of it.  Students are our central reason for being and we owe them a chance to succeed in the rigorous experiences of college life. High retention and graduation rates are also expected by the public that we serve, the students and their families paying hefty tuition bills, and the policymakers who make higher education a priority in the governmental budgeting process. 

At freshman orientation sessions in the 1970s and 80s, it was common for students to hear some version of the following point:  “look at the person to your left and the person to your right.  Only one of the three of you will be around for graduation four years from now.” This anecdote was likely meant to be motivational, but the story was somewhat mythical; institutions did not gather graduation data as regularly and systematically then.  Change soon came, however. New legislation in 1985 required comparisons of NCAA student-athletes with the student body and the Student Right-To-Know and Campus Security Act of 1990 required that institutions publish success rates and crime statistics in order to receive Title IV Federal aid.  It turned out that the actual rates for four-year graduation were worse for most state universities than what was thought; many public universities needed to go beyond 4 years to 5 or even 6 years of tracking a cohort to accomplish the 1/3 rate assumed in the quote above. This discovery and disclosure process prompted more focus on retention, which continues to the present day.  At the University of Oklahoma, we have doubled-down in our focus on retention and graduation, with considerable success over the last several years.  Graduation rates are up, while the freshman retention rate has improved 6% over the last four years.

Retention & Graduation Musts

The academic side of the house must engage and lead on retention initiatives.  It is tempting to delegate student success pursuits entirely to student affairs. We need to work with together with Student Affairs professionals to scale up retention efforts to the level of the entire freshman class and the student body.  The faculty, academic advisors and staff must be central in retention initiatives in order to achieve robust improvements in student retention and graduation.

Quality General Education teaching is vital to improving retention. While professors may generally covet teaching more advanced classes with students in their departments’ major fields, the general education courses that students take as freshmen are so critically important to their successful landing at the university and their take-off into specific fields of study.  These courses are also the commonality across students at a university in terms of instruction, providing the opportunity for shared student experiences in terms of topical context and skill development. For many fields, these are the only courses in which students write intensively and consider their own intrinsic value within society. Most pragmatically, when these introductory courses are ignored by the best teachers at a university and instead are taught by persons reluctant to do so, it can seriously and negatively affect student success.

Need-based financial assistance literally saves students.  Students leave the university for many reasons. While academic factors and grit explain some departures, the vast majority of departures are due to social and financial factors. Each year students leave universities due to financial issues when they would rather stay.  Need-based aid can turn a departing student around and endear them, their family and friends to the institution forever. (textbooks costs also are an issue. See my page about OER and OpenStax).

Get rid of the “weed-out” mentality. The notion that students that you have accepted into your institution do not belong there and you must get rid of them was one of the most destructive currents in 20th century professorial thinking.  While higher education is less of a “survival of the fittest” environment today compared to what it used to be, the residue of a weed-out mentality remains. While we want to be rigorous as faculty, positive psychology is the best approach to breed student success. All students deserve a chance to succeed.

Use an individualized approach. Simply having the right programs for students to go find is not good enough to move the retention needle.  The reasons that students leave are varied across the categories of academic, social and financial factors. When students are contemplating departure, they are not in a position to rationally surf the university website to find out which of many offices can help them.  Data analytics can be employed on various institutional data sources to determine the factors associated with staying or leaving and then predictively to identify students who are in need of individual outreach. The key at that point is to have personalized outreach with phone calls, text messages, or in-person visits.