How Can We Help Students Stay In College?
College is a major transition point for many young people. It opens up exciting opportunities and brings new experiences, ideas, and friendships. Yet it also involves significant adjustments and can present academic, financial, and social challenges. Helping students weather these changes and continue working toward their degree is perhaps the most effective way to set them up for career and financial success. Ensuring students stay in and complete college also boosts the state’s economic competitiveness by creating a more educated work force.
Encouraging college completion is particularly important for Rhode Island, which lags behind neighboring states when it comes to educational attainment. More than one in six (17%) new college students in Rhode Island don’t make it to their sophomore year at the institution where they started.1 Fortunately, this attrition can be prevented if the obstacles that cause students to drop out are identified early and addressed effectively.
This research investigates what colleges and universities can do to retain students and help them succeed. Retention is defined as a student returning from first year to sophomore year at a specific institution. This article highlights successful interventions from across the state and the country that can serve as a model for institutions in Rhode Island seeking to improve student retention.
Fig. 1 Educational Attainment in Rhode Island & Neighboring States
Source: RI Data Hub (2015)2
Why Does College Retention Matter?
Retention has always been a concern for universities, students, and the wider community, and its significance only continues to grow as a college degree becomes more important in the job market. College graduates contribute to local economic development and attract businesses seeking highly trained and educated workers.3 College-educated workers earn more,4 have a lower unemployment rate,5 and are more likely to be satisfied in their employment, leading to greater productivity and less turnover.6
Retention is also a major financial concern for institutions of higher education. Not only do universities lose future tuition revenue when students drop out, they also lose the money invested to recruit these students, which typically averages around $6,000 per student.7 For every 1,000 students in Rhode Island, 172 drop out after freshman year.1 At a school with a tuition base of $30,000, the loss of these 172 students could translate to $5 million in lost tuition revenue plus $1 million in wasted recruitment spending.8 Retention rates are therefore an important metric for institutions to evaluate how well they are serving students, compare themselves to other institutions, and set goals for improvement.
Fig. 2 National College Retention Rates
Source: National Center for Education Statistics (2015)9
Retention at Rhode Island institutions has traditionally been high compared to the national average. Upon closer examination, however, there is a gap between colleges that attract mainly Rhode Island residents and those with a more national and international student body. Schools with more Rhode Island residents have lower retention rates, which is a concern because these are the students most likely to remain and work in the state after graduation.3 This may be one reason that Rhode Island has a less educated workforce than neighboring states, and it may affect the state’s ability to attract prospective employers and investors.
Fig. 3 Rhode Island College Retention Rates, 2014
Source: National Center for Education Statistics (2014)1 Data is not available for NEIT.
What Causes Students to Drop Out?
Students encounter a range of challenges when they enter college. They may struggle to succeed in their classes, fulfill parental and faculty expectations, and juggle competing demands on their time. Some have obligations outside school, such as child care or work, that distract from academics. Other students have difficulty integrating into the school community and adapting to campus life, particularly if they are the first in their family to go to college, are returning to education at an older age, or are from racial or ethnic groups underrepresented on campus.
Research suggests that a number of factors interact to determine whether a particular student stays in college.10 Individual characteristics such as demographics (gender, race, ethnicity), socio-economic status, educational background (SAT/ACT scores, high school GPA), and psychological attributes (maturity, motivation) interact with institutional characteristics like faculty involvement, social integration among students, and perceptions about job availability after graduation.
With the general consensus that individual and environmental factors interact to determine retention, researchers have created multidimensional models10 to map and understand these interactions.(a) One prominent schema, for example, outlines nine key factors that affect retention:
- Intentions – student preconceptions prior to matriculating;
- Institutional fit – social integration with other students;
- Institutional commitment – loyalty to a particular college;
- Psychological processes – self-efficacy, approach/avoidance behavior, and locus of control; and(b)
- Key student attitudes – satisfaction, maturity and self-development, and self-confidence.10
(a) As models for understanding student retention have advanced, companies like Skyfactor have begun using data to predict whether particular students are at risk of attrition, helping universities intervene before a student drops out.
(b) Self-efficacy is a student’s belief in their ability to complete a task successfully. Approach/avoidance behavior is a student’s willingness to take action toward a goal. Locus of control relates to whether a student sees themselves as in control of outcomes in their life.11
This is just one model for understanding retention, but it demonstrates the complexity of the issue and how many different factors can play a role. The variables can be refined based on data from student surveys to capture the retention issues of a specific institution and its students. Programs can then be tailored to the factors that are most relevant on a particular campus or with certain groups of students, maximizing their potential impact.
How Can Universities Increase Retention?
Universities have developed a number of strategies for increasing retention.12 First-year orientation programs aim at familiarizing incoming students with many aspects of campus life. They introduce students to campus facilities and, just as importantly, offer social activities that promote student inclusion. Most programs occur shortly before the school year starts, although some have activities that continue throughout the first year.
Another way to acclimate students to their new environment is to build learning communities, which are groups of students with similar majors or other common interests such as community service or environmental initiatives. Assignments to residence halls and early liberal arts courses may be made according to these criteria so that social and institutional integration can begin immediately. In addition, schools may offer themed courses where similar students study and work on projects together.
Other retention strategies focus on academic success, by offering tutoring and remedial courses, or foster social inclusion through athletic teams, student activities, and interactions with faculty. One university even had the novel idea of providing school coffee mugs to instructors to encourage them to visit the cafeteria and interact with students.
While many of these strategies may have a positive influence on retention, most are targeted to the student population as a whole and to traditional retention factors. More recently, some schools have begun to create customized, data-driven programs that identify and address the needs of individual students with tailored services and activities.
Text Box 1. Promising Programs for Increasing Retention
(c) Developmental education (sometimes called remedial education) ensures that less prepared students have the foundation in reading, writing, and mathematics they need for college success.
Retention in Rhode Island
As part of this research, I conducted interviews with administrators responsible for retention at three Rhode Island institutions: Community College of Rhode Island, University of Rhode Island, and Roger Williams University. All three institutions have committees and programs dedicated to addressing retention. The administrators, two Program Directors and one Assistant Provost, identified several barriers to student success at Rhode Island institutions, as well as potential solutions.
Financial issues are a major concern, and the administrators proposed tuition freezes and increased financial aid as a potential response. While grants and scholarships are available, students may have a hard time finding them and knowing whether they qualify. Designated university services can help students find and apply for financial support.
Students also face barriers ranging from transportation to balancing school with work and parenting. While state and community agencies can offer relief, many students don’t know what services are available or how to access them. Some colleges have dedicated staff who provide students with information and assistance obtaining services.
One administrator discussed the importance of student attitudes, suggesting that students often have internalized feelings of failure and “imposter syndrome” (feeling like a fraud despite successes). In response, the retention program at their institution promotes peer collaboration aimed at social integration and building self-confidence.
Another administrator believed that faculty development could have the biggest potential impact on retention.19 Faculty relationships are key to helping students connect with their peers and their institution, and can boost student confidence and institutional commitment. Faculty who provide experiential learning opportunities and team projects encourage students to take ownership of their education, making them more likely to stay in school. Linking faculty with Learning Communities, first-year seminars, advising, and peer mentoring can foster connections that may increase retention.(d)
(d) One approach to engaging faculty in the process of retention involves having small teams of faculty focus on a single topic that could have an impact on student learning, with faculty sharing ideas and techniques and learning from each other’s experiences in the classroom.
Text Box 2. How Rhode Island Universities Promote Retention
Lessons for Rhode Island
Helping students stay in and complete college can benefit Rhode Island’s students, its colleges and universities, and its economy, by attracting business and better-paying jobs. Higher education institutions have used a variety of strategies to promote retention. To choose an effective strategy for a particular college, data should be collected to discover the most salient causes of retention at that school. Resources can then be directed toward interventions with the potential to have the most impact at that institution.
The Learning for Life (L4L) program at RIC is a good example of a tailored, targeted approach using evidence-based strategies to increase retention. The program collects data from students and uses this information to direct them to relevant services. It integrates students socially by assigning navigators and faculty who help them assimilate into college life. Data about the program are used to continuously improve the approach.
If Rhode Island’s colleges and universities are interested in improving retention, they can begin by looking at model programs to identify the approaches that would most appropriate for their institutions. Schools should also seek to identify initial funding sources to support piloting student surveys and identifying relevant resources. As soon as programs and services are launched, data collection should begin to support the evaluation and improvement of the initiatives. This tailored, data-driven approach would help ensure that each institution has a customized program to help its students stay in school, graduate, and become educated members of the workforce.
1. These findings are based on an analysis of 2014 retention data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) of the National Center for Education Statistics.
2. RI Data Hub (2015) “Rhode Island's workforce is less educated than those in MA and CT,” Providence, RI.
3. Arthur, Mikaila and Francis Leazes (2016) “How Higher Education Shapes The Workforce: A Study of Rhode Island College Graduates,” Providence, RI: The Collaborative.
4. Baum, Sandy, Jennifer Ma, and Kathleen Payea (2013) Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society, New York, NY: The College Board. Hout, Michael (2012) "Social and Economic Returns to College Education in the United States," Annual Review of Sociology, 38.
5. International Labour Office (2011) A Skilled Workforce for Strong, Sustainable, and Balanced Growth: A G20 Training Strategy, Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Organization.
6. Berger, Noah and Peter Fisher (2013) A Well-Educated Workforce is Key to State Prosperity, Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute.
7. Raisman, Neal A. (2009) “Retain Students, Retain Budgets: A How To,” University Business, April 1.
8. These calculations are based on the formula developed by Raisman (2009).
9. National Center for Education Statistics (2015) The Condition of Education, Washington, D.C.
10. Seidman, Alan (2005) College Student Retention: Formula for Student Success, Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
11. Hanover Research (2011) Predicting College Student Retention, Washington, D.C.
12. Weissman, E., O. Cerna, C. Geckeler, E. Schneider, D.V. Price, and T. Smith (2009) Promoting Partnerships for Student Success. Lessons from the SSPIRE Initiative, New York, NY: MDRC. Hanover Research (2014) Strategies for Improving Student Retention, Washington, D.C.
13. A collection of case studies on promising programs for increasing college retention, including several of the programs described here, is available from the U.S. Department of Education at https://www.ed.gov/college-completion/promising-strategies/tags/Retention.
14. City University of New York (2017) “Significant Increases in Associate Degree Graduation Rates: CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs,” New York, NY.
15. Bunker Hill Community College (2017) “Achieving the Dream [webpage],” Accessed June 20, 2017.
16. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2017) “I-LEAP Program Highlights [webpage],” Accessed June 20, 2017.
17. Buffalo State, SUNY (2017) “Making Achievement Possible,” Buffalo, NY.
18. Department of Education (2017) “California State University, Long Beach: First-Year Learning Communities and Mentoring,” Accessed June 20, 2017.
19. For more on faculty development, see: Henderson, Carrie E. and Julia Lawton, editors (2015) Engaging Faculty and Staff in the Student Success Agenda: Case Studies from the Walmart Foundation PRESS for Completion Grant Program, Silver Spring, MD: Achieving the Dream, Inc.
20. Rhode Island College (2017) “Learning for Life: What We Do [webpage],” Accessed June 20, 2017.
Type of Research