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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Study Finds Academic ‘Coaching’ Boosts Graduation Rates

A Stanford University School of Education study being released today suggests that undergraduates who receive executive-style “coaching” — including guidance on setting goals and time management — are more likely to remain in college and graduate.

A Stanford professor, Eric Bettinger, and a doctoral student, Rachel Baker, reviewed the academic records of more than 13,500 undergraduates at eight colleges and universities during the 2003-4 school year, and again in 2007-8.

The researchers calculated a 10-percent to 15-percent increase in retention rates among those who had received coaching and mentoring — a finding of no small import at a moment when hundreds of thousands of students are dropping out before graduation, or taking upward of six years to complete their degrees.

For those readers of The Choice bound for college next fall, I believe the results underscore the importance of seeking out mentors early, not only among the staff of deans and counselors, but upperclassmen, too.

“The results are clear: coaching had a clear impact on retention and completion rates,” Professor Bettinger said in a statement released with the report. “And not only does coaching improve the likelihood students will remain in college, but expenditures on coaching are much smaller than the costs of other methods to encourage persistence in college.”

The data for the study was provided by InsideTrack, a company that has been a pioneer in providing students with such counseling, including at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., which was the subject of a feature article in USA Today in 2005.

Via Jacques Steinberg, New York Times.

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