Trying to identify the critical factors that influence our students’ decisions to persist or withdraw is a tricky business. In addition to tracking our overall fall-to-fall retention rates for first year students (the only retention number that is widely reported), we track the fall-to-fall retention rates for each of the other cohorts (even 5th year seniors). Furthermore, we break those cohort retention rates down by a variety of demographic categories (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, incoming academic preparation, and first-generation status).
But tracking the fall-to-fall retention rates only tells us of part of the story. The decision to persist or withdraw isn’t a simple or momentary decision, and research clearly indicates that the major decision to stay or leave is preceded by a multitude of minor decisions that combine to pull the student toward (or push the student away from) the brink of this ultimate choice. So if we want to more fully understand the nature of this series of decisions, another way to look at it is to examine the term-to-term retention rates. Although this approach is still based on evidence of the ultimate choice to leave Augustana, it might allow us to better understand something about the factors that influence student to leave after the fall term, winter term, and spring term (since we ask students who leave why they are leaving in an exit interview), thereby giving us the opportunity to see if there are differences in the reasons students give for leaving across these three departure points. It is this kind of knowledge that might help us figure out what kind of interventions to prioritize over the course of the academic year.
Below are three sets of fall-to-winter retention rates for our traditional student cohorts. Please note that each of these percentage rates represent the proportion of students in each cohort who were enrolled during the prior term. These rates do not represent the proportion of a entering cohort that is still enrolled at Augustana.
As you can see, our fall-to-winter retention rates increased for every cohort of students. In the case of the 1st through 4th year cohorts, I’d say this is a good thing. For the 5th year students, it’s more complicated (e.g., is the fact that more of them returned for the winter term a function of their particular choice of academic programs? Or is it a function of our inability to offer them the courses they needed in a timely manner?).
What more are we to make of these numbers? By themselves, it seems to suggest what we already know – Augustana loses more first year student in the fall term than second, third, or fourth year students. This year, for example, we lost 24 first years, 9 second years, 10 third years, and 3 fourth years. While we might be able to improve among our first year students, it appears there might not be much more we could do systematically to increase fall-to-winter retention among all but the first year students. At the same time, if we are going to hang our hat on being a college that is very good at building relationships with all students, then those 22 non-first-year students each represent an opportunity for us to improve. The important thing to note about the first-year students’ departure patterns is that the vast majority of them didn’t even complete the first term. Although in some cases there may not be much we can do, this fact emphasizes the degree to which we need to build relationships with our students right away instead of waiting for them to open up or make the first move.
As you can expect, we are in the process of further analyzing our data, especially in connection with the freshman data we collected right before winter registration (i.e. about week 7). To be sure, you will be the first to know if we find anything!
Make it a good day,