A couple of weeks ago I shared with everyone the eye-popping news of our most recent 1st-2nd year retention rate. The CliffsNotes/SparkNotes/Jiffynotes version (whatever happened to Reader’s Digest?) of that post are:
- 88.9% of the 2015 class came back this fall,
- this is the highest retention rate we’ve ever recorded (and more than a full point higher than the previous high set in 2010), and
- maybe we shouldn’t second-guess goals that seem at first to be too high.
Since we’ve made a concerted investment of people and resources toward improving our 1st-2nd year retention rate, this is nice to see. But since our efforts have been targeted to improve retention rates among several specific populations of students (i.e., students who have historically persisted at lower rates than the overall population), it makes sense to look and see whether those specific efforts are bearing fruit. After all, money does’t grow on trees at Augustana (although we’d be stinkin’ rich if it did!); it actually matters a lot whether or not our investments are paying off. So let’s dig a little deeper and examine the the last four years of retention rates among four groups of students long known to leave Augustana at higher rates than the rest of the first-year class: students of color, low income students, less academically prepared students, and first generation students.
While it would be a mistake to think that each of these groups were somehow completely independent of each other (i.e., there are certainly individual students who fit into more than one of these categories), it is true that research on the factors that influence the decision to withdraw from college has found differences among these four groups. Students of color often feel relegated to the margins of a college community – especially when that community is mostly white. Low income students often find that financial constraints undermine their ability to access the college experience offered to, and touted by, mainstream students. Students who are less academically prepared often find themselves overwhelmed and without the resources that might help them adjust to the academic rigors of college. And first generation students often struggle with a lack of confidence in their ability to succeed in college and a lack of knowledge about navigating the unwritten rules and norms that the rest of us unconsciously perpetuate every day.
With these findings in mind, we have developed specific programs to address each of these issues for students who fit into these groups. So . . . are these programs working?
Below I’ve listed the retention rates for each student subpopulation over the last four years. Remember, the overall retention rates for each of the last four years are:
- 2013 – 84.9%
- 2014 – 82.9%
- 2015 – 86.1%
- 2016 – 88.9%
Over the same period, these are the retention rates for:
Students of Color
- 2013 – 81.3%
- 2014 – 78.4%
- 2015 – 82.2%
- 2016 – 86.1%
Low Income Students
- 2013 – 81.3%
- 2014 – 80.8%
- 2015 – 83.4%
- 2016 – 86.6%
Less Academically Prepared Students
- 2013 – 75.0%
- 2014 – 78.6%
- 2015 – 77.4%
- 2016 – 83.9%
First Generation Students
- 2013 – N/A (we didn’t create an easy way to track these students until 2013)
- 2014 – 80.8%
- 2015 – 80.5%
- 2016 – 85.3%
Clearly, the retention rates of students of color, low income students, less academically prepared students, and first generation students have improved. And although the nerdy PhD in me would like to see a few more years of retention data before announcing that we have a definitive trend, at the very least we can say that our investments of money, positions, and space into these programs are not not working. Frankly, I think it’s far more reasonable to suggest that our efforts seem to be working quite well.
Lest you forget what this means in terms of real money, the difference in net revenue between last year’s retention rate of 86.1% and this year’s retention rate of 88.9% isn’t chump change. If we conservatively assume that:
- term-to-term attrition rates don’t change (which in reality are almost sure to go up if overall year-to-year retention rate goes up), and
- Actual revenue per first year student will not be less than the five-year low of $14,251 (2014/15),
the estimated increased net tuition revenue to the college this year ends up at just over $270,000. Moreover, the estimated increased net comprehensive fee revenue (i.e., including housing and student fees in addition to tuition) – again using the five-year low in actual numbers – ends up closer to $432,800.
By the way, if you want to test my math you can find all of the numbers I referenced above on the college dashboard that is always posted on the Augustana Institutional Research web page, along with the detailed breakdown of retention rates.
Triangulating these data with all of the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen over the past year, I’m gonna go out on a pretty thick limb and say that I believe that what we have been doing is working. So the next time you see someone whom you think might be involved in this work (I think you can figure that part out on your own) thank them for all of the effort they have put into helping our students succeed. And if you hear someone grouse about additional resources being invested when things are tight all over, it might be worthwhile to remind them that, sometimes those investments are worth it.
Not to mention that whole “educational mission” thing.
Make it a good day,