The illustration above highlights findings from the 2012 National Freshman Attitudes Report, recently released by Noel-Levitz. Along with identifying needs for college freshmen as a whole, the report identifies the specific needs of subpopulations, as shown, to assist institutions with identifying and targeting appropriate educational interventions.
Check out recent Noel-Levitz blog entries and you’ll see my colleagues Jim Hundrieser and Tim Culver both making strong cases for data-informed practices to boost retention and graduation rates by targeting diverse student populations. Tim applauded the University of Texas for its plan to boost graduation rates by 20 percent. For argument’s sake, I want to step off the bandwagon for a moment and make a case for encouraging campuses to stop focusing so much on retention and graduation and to look for the positive side of student attrition. Bear with me for a few more sentences.
One reason community colleges in particular struggle with graduation rates is because so many students in associate’s degree programs transfer to a four-year school before completing the associate’s degree; they then become attrition statistics. This is no doubt why the U.S. Education Department announced plans to broaden its definition of “student success.” It reflects a more accurate, more realistic view of student “attrition.” Students at all institution types identify new major or career paths that are not supported by their first college, and off they go. Some students arrive at college unprepared, or at the wrong time in their lives. The first group is often better served by stepping back and working on skill development, sometimes at their first school, but sometimes at another. The second group may better spend their time focusing on work or family and giving school a try at a later life stage. All of these students leave for good reasons, but their departures count against a school’s retention rate, and if they don’t come back, their leaving will count against graduation rates, too. When students leave for reasons that make sense in their own lives, it should be good for the school too.
“How do we compare to other schools?”
In my work as a consultant, I get asked some variation of this question a lot, especially with campuses that are trying to compare their student retention initiatives to similar institutions. More campuses are becoming increasingly data-oriented toward student retention—a great development—and national benchmarks are one way to gauge their performance.
There are good national benchmarks for student satisfaction and student engagement, but precious few quantitative measures of retention success. The two retention success measures we rely on heavily are annually-released measures from IPEDS for first-time, full-time students: 1) first-to-second-year retention, and 2) 150-percent-of-normal-time graduation rates (three years for two-year institutions and six years for four-year institutions). These two measures are supplemented by annually-released five-year graduation rates from ACT.
Towards the end of last year there was some discussion amongst the higher education community about extending the degree completion rate measurement—the maximum number of years that are taken into account when calculating the rate at which students complete their degree from an institution—from 150 percent of the intended four years (six years) to 200 percent (eight years). The argument for doing so was that it would better demonstrate how many students graduate either from their first-attended institution or, if we use added data from the national clearinghouse, from another institution.
I am all for measuring student progression and watching progression trends. This information should help campuses assess their current retention-based systems and identify potential gaps for specific majors. However, if we begin to use this as a standard to measure time lines for degree completion, it may prove to be a colossal mistake with massive student completion and cost consequences.
I believe this change would further lower our campus expectations and exacerbate rising barriers to both college access and student success while simultaneously increasing the financial challenges facing college-goers and their families. The six-year standard established decades ago has led to a campus culture that says that graduating in six years is expected and an established norm. For first-time, full-time entering students, our standards should instead be improved to three years for associate’s degrees and five years for bachelor’s degrees. The tougher standard could be critical in encouraging students to focus during this shorter period, complete their degrees, relieve some of their financial burdens, and, most importantly, allow for more students to have the same opportunity.
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.