Are there really best practices in student retention?

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What does it mean to use "best practices" in college student retention? Jim Hundrieser offers strategies for improving retention and graduation rates.

How can you turn best practices in retention into successful retention actions?

Every other year, Noel-Levitz polls campuses on their most- and least-effective practices for student retention. In response, we get a wide range of answers. This variety isn’t surprising. In our consultations with campuses, we often learn that individual institutions are piecing together a patchwork of practices.

So, one may ask, are there best practices? The answer is yes. However, true “best practices” are those that are customized to match your student populations, grounded in the foundations of each practice, and matched with your institution’s values and mission.

For example, in our 2011 Student Retention Practices Report, 93 percent of campuses said they used first-year experience programs, a popular best practice for student retention. However, not all first-year experience programs are created equal, and some may simply be an English course with a common reading among all first-year students. While this has it merits, the campus should have a first-year experience course grounded in John Gardner’s work that calls for a course which extends orientation and provides engagement activities that foster student success.

Also, each institution needs to know which practices best match its specific student subpopulations. Only by carefully measuring the persistence and progression patterns and the impact of each activity can we confirm the value of so-called “best practices.”

Gaining focus: Some practices to consider for specific subpopulations

Transfer students, adult students, and online learners are three student populations that have been growing steadily and will continue to grow in the coming years. Yet there are still many campuses that do not have programs in place for these populations. For example, only 20 percent of four-year private institutions and 30 percent of four-year publics reported having programs specifically aimed at online learners. Slightly less than half of two-year institutions said they had programs aimed at adult/nontraditional students, and only 27 percent had programs for transfer students (this despite the practice of some students planning to transfer from a four-year institution back to a two-year institution and transfer back again to a four-year institution.) Programs for second-year students were some of the least used and least effective across all institution types.

For each of these populations, campuses must identify strategies and practices that engage and connect these learners to the campus. Here are some examples:

  • Orientation programs customized for each population. For example, if you don’t have one already, consider introducing an online orientation program only for online learners which highlights how to reach an advisor, pay a bill, register for classes, apply for financial aid, receive online tutorial support, and learn of your institution’s online social networking opportunities. (Although four-year institutions in particular cited “social networking to engage students in online communications” as one of the least-effective practices, the popularity of social networking among students still makes it an important communication tool.)
  • Academic support programs for adult learners that are available early in the morning or later in the evening (often needed after their evening class is over).
  • Ensuring classes are offered in a sequence that allows students to graduate on time and has some back-up plans in case a student gets off track.
  • Articulation agreements that match students’ prescribed curriculum at the previous institution and provide an easy transfer process. (See this post for more ideas on understanding the enrollment motives of transfer students.)
  • Identifying classes with highest D, F, or W grades and determining highly interactive and intrusive activities to ensure students complete the course with expected learning outcomes.
  • Assessment and retention programs for second-year students (My colleague Tim Culver recenltly wrote this post about research on the growing importance of the second-year experience).

Remember, it is essential to measure student success initiatives in order to ensure practices are effective. Since every campus is different, it isn’t safe to assume that best practices will garner the best results. Instead, campuses must take the time to measure program effectiveness and conduct cost-benefit analyses by subpopulation.

Addressing risk and receptivity to assistance

More than half of the responding campuses in the latest poll reported having early-alert programs that were “somewhat” or “very” effective. However, we know from our work on campuses that few institutions are using predictive modeling to identify early which incoming students are at risk. Using predictive measures helps campuses intervene with those students where influence can (and often will) make a difference. Campuses can use these measures to distinguish between those students who are “most at risk” and those students who are “at risk.” My advice would be to focus on those “at risk” first and those “most at risk” second. With limited resources, we spend too much time focused on the neediest and not enough time on those with whom some influence will make a difference.

Likewise, knowing how receptive students are to assistance is a crucial piece of data for effective interventions. No matter how much we want to help every student succeed, our best chances for success come when we reach students who want help. By focusing first on students who are “at risk” and who are receptive to assistance, you will dramatically increase your chances of helping those students persist and complete their educational goals.

Are you happy with your retention plan? Do you even have a retention plan?

With all that we know about the importance of retention planning, it is a surprise that the number of four-year campuses that said they had a written retention plan declined in 2011 compared to when we asked the same question in 2009. What’s more, only 44 percent of four-year publics, 33 percent of four-year privates, and 27 percent of two-year public institutions said their plans were “good” or “excellent.” And less than half of four-year campuses and fewer than a third of two-year institutions said their retention committees were “good” or “excellent.”

These results show that while benchmarks and best practices have meaning, few have strong effectiveness if not actively managed through a retention initiatives committee with leadership that reports directly to the president or provost. Student-success-related activities must be led by someone who has the skills and abilities to work well with others and remain focused on these tasks. In addition, plans must be guided by data and outcomes, carefully tracked, and regularly updated in order to have the maximum impact on student retention. Because for the amount of effort that campuses put into committees and planning, they should feel much more strongly about their effectiveness than what these results show.

How about you? How do you feel about the retention efforts at your campus? Share your insights in the comments, or if you have questions, please e-mail me. I would love to hear from you and share strategies that can help you put the “best” in your best practices.

About the author

Jim Hundrieser, Ph.D., served as a senior associate consultant at Noel-Levitz. He has extensive experience with strategic planning and developing effective strategies for student recruitment, student retention, assessment, and campus organization.

Read more about Jim’s experience and expertise »

Reach Jim by e-mail at jim-hundrieser@noellevitz.com.

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