Ok, so that headline might sound a little dramatic. Yet even on the most collegial of campuses, a serious conversation about retention rates – especially if that number has gone in the wrong direction over the last year or two – can quickly devolve into wave of finger pointing and rekindle a litany of old grudges.
We’ve all heard the off-handed comments. “If admissions would just recruit better,” “If faculty would just teach better,” “If student affairs would just help students fit in better,” “If financial aid would just award more money.” Lucky for me, all of these assertions are testable claims. And since we have the data . . . (cue maniacal laughter).
Yet using our data to find a culprit would fly in the face of everything that we are supposed to be about. We say that our students learn because of the holistic nature of the Augustana experience. And analyzing our student data by individual characteristics implies that our students are somehow one-dimensional robots. Most importantly, if we want to improve, then we have to assess with the specific intent of starting a conversation – not ending it. That means that we have to approach this question with the assumption that we are all critical contributors to retaining students.
This year’s first-to-second year retention rate isn’t great. At 82.9%, it’s the lowest it’s been in five years. In the context of the Augustana 2020′s target retention rate of 90%, there is certainly reason for raised eyebrows. To understand what is going on underneath that overall number, it’s worth looking at our data in a way that mirrors the students’ interaction with Augustana up until they decide to stay or leave. So let’s organize these trends into two categories: students’ pre-college demographic traits and the students’ first year experiences.
Scholars of retention research generally point to five pre-college demographic traits that most powerfully impact retention: gender, race, socioeconomic status, academic preparation, and first generation status. Below is five-year trend data across these categories.
|Pell grant recipient||78.4%||83.3%||84.0%||81.3%||80.8%|
|Only qualified for loans||88.7%||87.4%||83.5%||83.3%||81.2%|
|Did not qualify for need aid||90.6%||90.6%||86.2%||89.5%||86.7%|
|First generation||data not collected until 2012||83.0%||80.8%|
|ACT <= 22||77.8%||82.1%||83.3%||75.0%||78.6%|
|ACT top three quartiles||91.0%||89.9%||85.3%||88.3%||83.9%|
As you can see, our own data suggests a more complicated picture. Although nationally women persist at higher rates than men, our data flipped last year when persistence among men actually eclipsed persistence among women. Our retention rate for multicultural students (our euphemism for non-white students) has trended steadily downward, a fact made more pressing by a steady increase in the number of multicultural students. Although we haven’t tracked first-generation status for more than a few years, this retention rate has also dropped while the number of first generation students has increased. While our retention rate of Pell Grant recipients (those students with the highest need) has increased slightly, the retention rates of students who only qualified for loans has dropped steadily. At the same time, the retention rate of students from the highest socioeconomic status has dropped a bit.
Finally, academic preparation retention rates paint an interesting picture. The national data would suggest that our worst retention rates should be among those students who come from the lowest ACT quartile. At Augustana, those students’ retention rates are also lower and haven’t changed much. By contrast, the retention rates of students from each of the other three quartiles, although they are still higher than the lowest quartile, dropped substantially between 2012 and 2013. Interestingly, the retention rate of the students who applied test-optional has gone up almost 8 points over the past five years.
But students’ likelihood of persisting to their second year is not etched in stone before they start college. Another way to look at some of these trends is to examine the characteristics of the students who leave against those traits that might indicate an experience that differs from the mainstream in some important way – especially if we know that this difference in experience might affect the calculus by which the student determines whether it is worth the time, money, and emotional investment to stay. So as you look through this table, remember that these percentages are the proportion of departed students who fit each category.
|cumulative GPA was below 2.5||57.3%||50.5%||47.3%||43.4%||39.3%|
|Pell grant recipient||29.3%||32.3%||25.5%||31.3%||31.8%|
|Only qualified for loans||36.0%||38.7%||47.3%||46.5%||42.1%|
|Did not qualify for need aid||34.7%||29.0%||27.3%||22.2%||26.2%|
Much of this data corroborates what we saw in the examination of retention rates by pre-college characteristics in the case of gender, race, socioeconomic status, first generation status, and academic preparation. However, one new trend adds some interesting nuance to the impact of the first year experience on retention. If we look at the proportion of departing students who are also in academic difficulty when they left, there is a clear differences of almost 20 percentage points among those who had less than a 2.5 GPA when they left. In other words, far fewer of our departing students are in a position where their grades might be the primary reason for their departure. This suggests to me that, if they aren’t departing because of grades, then there are other key elements of the first year experience that would be primary contributors to the decision to depart.
We aren’t going to answer the question of what is negatively impacting retention today. Even if we were to pinpoint a significant factor in a particular year, because the nature of each class differs, evidence from one year might be entirely useless the next. My point today is simply to highlight the degree to which all of us impact retention together.
I’d like to think that on some level we know that finger pointing is foolish. Yet in an environment where we are simultaneously immersed in our own silos and entirely dependent on the efforts of others (e.g., faculty don’t have a job if admissions doesn’t recruit anyone), it doesn’t seem all too surprising that such behavior (especially if budgets are under threat) might surface despite the best of intentions. So maybe if you hear someone grouse about retention rates and “rounding up the usual suspects,” you’ll remind them that we are in this together. If we fail to improve, it won’t be because someone didn’t do their job – it will be because we all didn’t pull together.
Make it a good day,