Colleges Try to Unlock Secrets to Student Retention

Record numbers of students flocked to college campuses this fall with high hopes of obtaining what many say is the new prerequisite for a middle-class life: a college degree. But the harsh reality is that little more than half those bright-eyed college freshmen, on average, will actually finish.

The gap between access and completion has put a new focus on ramping up retention—the percentage of freshmen who return to the same institution for a second year of college. And that’s a task, observers say, for precollegiate educators as well as their college counterparts.

Just as there are multiple reasons for dropping out—from money to academics to lack of direction—there is a range of initiatives emerging to boost college completion. Counselors and mentors are texting students to remind them of tests, connecting families with financial-aid sources, and guiding students through the social transition to college.

Many programs are showing promise, but they often are short term and light touch rather than intensive, said Susan Scrivener, a senior associate at MDRC, a New York City-based research organization. “It’s important to turn toward more-comprehensive, longer-lasting programs,” she said. “They have more potential to make a really big difference.”

When students fail to graduate, they lose out on tuition money and time spent pursuing a degree—and often are in student-loan debt that can set them back years. They’re also losing the potential earning power that comes with a college degree—as much as $1 million more than someone with a high school diploma alone, according to recent research. And college dropouts cost society in potential tax contributions and unrealized creativity.


Retention rates have been relatively unchanged for decades, hovering around 67 percent. Students are more likely to return for a second year of college at four-year public or private colleges, where retention rates were about 74 percent in the 2011 surveys conducted by ACT Inc., the testing and research company based in Iowa City, Iowa. Recently, however, community colleges have shown improvement. Retention rates at two-year public colleges climbed from 51 percent in 2004 to 56 percent in 2011—the second-highest level since 1989.


The ACT surveyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader found colleges’ top retention strategies were: freshman seminars, tutoring programs, advisory interventions, mandated course-placement testing programs, and comprehensive learning-assistance centers or labs. Read more.

Via Caralee J. Adams, Education Week.

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Pathways to Completion

From Bob Hawkes, Director of Workforce Development, Kern Community College District:

The attached article came to my attention recently and I wanted to pass it on to you.  The author, Terry O’Banion was the president of the League of Innovation for 23 years and nationally recognized as a strong advocate for community colleges, an innovator who is not afraid to make bold suggestions for improvement.  The national trend for valuing completion over access has come to California and he offers a solid agenda for reaching our regional goals.  As he states at the end of the second page, “Failure is not an option.”  I urge you to read what he has to say, digest it and be prepared to discuss it at our next collaborative meeting on October 13.  Regards,  Bob

Via Terry O’Banion, Community College Journal.

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The Gap Year: Breaking up the “Cradle to College to Cubicle to Cemetery” Cycle

“How many of you would love to take a gap year right now?” Holly Bull, an independent student gap year adviser asked a room full of college counselors early on Saturday morning.

A groggy audience sprang to life, all hands shooting up at a lecture entitled “Gap Year: American Style” at the National Association of College Counselors conference in New Orleans.

The idea of taking time off between high school and college — a self-exploratory sabbatical in the free spirit of 1970s — has increasingly become a structured concept in the United States, with counselors like Ms. Bull linking students and parents up with formal programs.

As the number of students who opt to take a gap year has grown, so, too, has awareness of gap year benefits to the student, said Robert Clagett, former dean of admissions at Middlebury College (and formerly an admissions officer at Harvard).

Mr. Clagett said he is compiling data from institutions across the country on gap year student performance once they matriculate, and he cited Middlebury’s own statistics of recent years.

The data demonstrated that average G.P.A. for Middlebury students who took a break — 35 people this year — was consistently higher than that of those who did not. (He noted that self-selection could be partly at play, that gap year students are typically more affluent and may have some different, unifying qualities.) Read more.

Via Rebecca R. Ruiz, The New York Times.

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How to Fix the Mess We Call Middle School

Elementary schools and high schools are tough enough to run, but middle schools are a problem unto themselves. Nobody quite knows what to do with students who are of age to be in what we call middle school. What we know about the developmental profile of kids from age 11 to 14 tells us that a traditional academic classroom experience is not the best option.

Puzzled educators have experimented for decades with the K-8 model, junior highs, middle schools (different from junior highs because they have earlier grades), and then back to the K-8 model. Nothing seems quite right.

In recent years many school districts have returned to the K-8 model,including in Washington D.C., where former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee promoted the model in part, she said, because kids performed better academically, though the research she cited is widely disputed.

In 2008, she created 17 PreK-8 schools, but, alas, the standardized test scores are no better than they were before, my colleague Bill Turquenotes in this story. (Yet another Rhee reform that didn’t quite turn out as great as all that.) Now D.C. schools officials are trying to solve, yet again, the middle school puzzle.

Here’s some of what we know about kids in this age group — and why it is past time to do something radically different:

* Students in this age group are known to be egocentric, argumentative, and — this is not small thing — utterly preoccupied with social concerns rather than academic goals, driven by the swirling of their hormones.

* They don’t always have solid judgment, but they find themselves in position to make decisions that can affect them throughout their lives.

* They enjoy solving real life problems with skills.

Via Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post.

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Career Readiness Certificate Lands Jobs

In July, Kimberly Jackson signed a three-year contract with St. Joseph Medical Center to complete her medical residency. Less than a year ago, as she was completing her degree, Jackson found herself in dire straits. She was expecting to work as an administrative assistant at the hospital but cutbacks eliminated the job she was supposed to fill, leaving her unemployed and ineligible for unemployment compensation.

She needed a good-paying job in a hurry and the National Career Readiness Certificate provided the means to land just such a job within weeks.

Jackson visited her local One-Stop and learned about the National Career Readiness Certificate, which is issued by ACT, the same organization that administers the ACT college admissions test. The Career Readiness Certificate is an evidence-based credential that measures essential skills used in the workplace using WorkKeys assessments.

Jackson practiced the modules online, took the test and was awarded a gold certificate. There are four levels of certification — bronze, silver, gold and platinum. They are awarded based on applicants’ scores in each of three core skills: applied mathematics, locating information and reading for information.

For a bronze certificate, applicants must score at least a level three in each of these core skills. Achieving the proficiency required for a bronze certificate ensures applicants are qualified for 16% of the jobs in ACT’s occupational database. Read more.

Via Maraline Kubik, Business Journal Daily.

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