Dusting under the retention furniture

A couple of weeks ago I highlighted our success in maintaining a historically high 1st-2nd year retention rate (87%) despite a substantial increase in the size of the freshmen class between 2009 to 2010.  Although this is something that we should indeed celebrate, we need to be willing to look inside these numbers and explore whether our overall rate accurately reflects the behaviors of various student types.  This week I want to dig a little deeper and explore those variations.  To be precise, I’ll call it persistence when talking about the students’ decision and retention when talking about the number that we track as a proxy measure for student experience and success in the first year.

As you might expect, our retention rate isn’t the same for all student types.  Pre-college academic ability plays a big role.  Students with an ACT score of 23 or above persisted at 89%, while those with an ACT score below 23 persisted at 81%.  Likewise, there are two demographic characteristics – race/ethnicity and gender – that historically influence retention rates across the country as well as at Augustana.  In the 2010 cohort, white students persisted at 89%, while multicultural students persisted at 81%.  In addition, female students persisted at 89%, while male students persisted at 85%.

Before talking about what these differential rates might mean, it is important to remember that pre-college ability, race/ethnicity, and gender don’t exist independently – an individual student is necessarily categorized along all three dimensions.  So the question also becomes whether or not there is a subset of categories that, when combined, produce a starkly lower likelihood of persistence to the second year.

Not surprisingly, we have such a troublesome combination at Augustana.  Of the three categories listed above, it is the combination of being male and multicultural that produces the lowest retention rate of any combination – 77%.  Interestingly the effect of being male also influences the retention rate of students with higher incoming ACT scores.  Females with ACT scores of 23 or above persisted at 92%, while males with a similar ACT score persisted at 86%.  By comparison, the retention rate of students with lower ACT scores (below 23) did not vary significantly by gender.

Although these differences might suggest an array of programmatic interventions, solving a retention “problem” can be a bit like the old carnival game Whack-a-Mole.  A singular focus on one subset of students can become a frustratingly reactionary exercise over time. Yet, understanding the nature of these students’ challenges can be a critical first step in addressing retention issues. What common issues might be at the core of these differences across gender and race/ethnicity?  To help us take a first step in thinking about the issues that our male students face, I’d encourage you to attend Dr. Tracy Davis’ presentation at Friday Conversation this week.  I’ll talk more about the challenges facing multicultural students in a later column.

Make it a good day,

Mark

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