For any of you who are feeling a little uncomfortable right now because you saw two mathematical formulas in the title of this blog post, it’s okay, I promise! I thought it might be a good time to revisit these important retention concepts with you since you’ve just completed fall term and are about to begin spring term.
Many of you will soon notice or have already noticed that some of your students who were enrolled in the fall are no longer enrolled. Perhaps you already know the myriad of reasons why, or maybe you don’t, but, nonetheless, let’s chat about how you can put these formulas to work on your campus.
The formulas are nothing less than the foundations for my practice when I visit colleges and universities that are working to increase retention. Let’s talk about the four elements. Persistence (term-to-term return rates) when added to Progression (successful Persistence) theoretically allows you to predict your Retention (fall return rate).
So, if your students persist, progress, and return each fall then they will Complete (graduate, transfer, certificate, etc.) a plan of study.
Oh yes, if it were only this easy! There’s a lot of “stuff” that makes this complicated and one of the more complex aspects of the art and science of enrollment management. But the formulas do make things easier. Really.
A simple example
Here is a simple example of what I mean. In our recent Mid-Year Retention Indicators Report, the median response indicated that somewhere between 9 percent and 19 percent (depending upon institution type) of first-year students don’t return from fall to spring. Right away we can see how the formulas above are impacted. If you are losing 19 percent of your students in one term then the best retention rate you can expect to achieve is 81 percent. We all know that probably won’t happen because you will also see attrition from spring to fall. (See, I told you the formulas aren’t as intimidating as you might have thought.)
The most difficult part of the formulas to assess and address is the Progression factor. There are so many issues associated with Progression. Recently, one of my campuses did some assessment and re-discovered that if students received a first-term GPA of less than 2.0 they were less likely to return the following fall. In the same survey mentioned above, more first-year students were placed on probation during the first term than they were during the second term. Perhaps you might link first-term probation to fall return rate to see what kind of relationship exists on your campus. If there is a relationship between first-term GPA and fall return rate, then academic recovery programs should be in place to assist these students. What I’ve seen on most campuses is an “invitation” to take advantage of programs and services. What if we required it? Required engagement is a topic I continue to struggle with as you can imagine. What happens if they don’t “engage?”
Major selection, appropriate course scheduling, plans of study, and effective academic advising are all strategies that we attempt to make better on our campuses so that students can attempt and complete courses. First-year students at two-year and four-year institutions completed 77 to 93 percent of the credit hours they attempted (median rates), with the highest rates of completion reported among students at four-year private colleges. Again, this is one of those very complicated Progression issues. If students aren’t completing what they are attempting then we have to do some assessment to open the door for strategy development. An added element is course success. Students may have completed their courses with grades of D or F. Yes, they completed but they didn’t progress.
Where to from here?
So you might be saying, so what? I say that often too. Here’s how I will summarize the formula P + P + R = C:
Colleges and universities have historically waited to evaluate retention performance using lagging indicators typically collected and reported when data are submitted to IPEDS. However, institutions are now in a position to plan more effectively using key leading performance indicators (persistence and progression), which can be collected and assessed at mid-year. By using these data as a basis, along with the information that you know about your students at the time of admission, first-semester and mid-year assessments, persistence behavior, and course completion and success rates, you should be able to calculate correlations with retention and graduation rates and identify your expected retention rates well in advance of IPEDS submissions.
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