Athletes, Enrollment, and Retention

It’s becoming more and more clear that the way we have thought about retention in the past is just too simplistic. Too often we use terms like “levers” or “buttons” in suggesting that if we could only identify the right thing to change, then retention would improve. However, when we don’t take the time to fully match our metaphor to the complexity of our circumstances, we run the real risk of putting in a lot of effort for very little improvement. For example, if we like the idea of one or more “levers” that we think we can move to systematically impact our retention rate, our metaphor can’t assume that the levers under our control are independent from each other. As we all know, the educational endeavor in which we are involved is much too complex. For our metaphor to be accurate (and therefore useful in identifying a course of action that has the best chance of producing positive results), we have to understand that each lever over which we have control is welded to other levers. In essence, moving one lever will automatically re-position others that also affect the long-term health of the college.

One example of this complexity became more apparent recently as we were examining our retention data among athletes.  Over the years we’ve found that typical first-to-second year retention rates among students who self-report as athletes are higher than our college average, and four, five, and six year graduation rates of athletes don’t differ between athletes and non-athletes. However, in digging a little deeper we found that about 45% of the students who left during the 2012 school year (a subset of the all the students who leave sometime between their first and second fall terms) started that academic year as athletes, a much higher proportion than the overall percentage of students who identify as athletes at the end of the year (about 30%). Unlike prior retention analysis where we used student self-reports of athletic status, for this analysis we looked at all of the students who were listed on all sports team’s initial rosters – including all the students who quit their sport before the end of the season and therefore didn’t report themselves as athletes on the end-of-the-year survey.

At first, one might think that this is a problem for athletics to solve (stereotypes of the hard-nosed dictator/coach chasing off less capable athletes might come to mind). However, further exploration exposes the degree to which our levers are welded together. You’ll forgive me if I borrow from my decade of experience in college athletics here to make my point.

It is no secret that our investment in athletics is, at least in part, based on the reality that athletic opportunity is a potent enrollment draw.  Our coaches play a significant role in encouraging perspective students to come to Augustana, both by initiating recruiting relationships and by offering opportunities to those students who inquire. This is clearly evident in the size of many of our sports’ initial rosters; especially among men’s sports. However, in the same way that the student-faculty ratio matters in creating a high touch, personalized college experience, the athlete-coach ratio matters too.  Large rosters can make it more difficult for a coach to connect with each player. And especially among younger athletes who may have less opportunity to compete due to the presence of older, more skilled players, this can exacerbate feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt that sometimes produce a decision to leave the team – and even the college. In the end, the way that we are using one lever (athletics) to meet enrollment goals may be increasing the likelihood of attrition among a certain subset of students.

Please understand that I am not advocating that we change anything.  Instead, given the the number of sports we offer and the way that we current organize our athletics programs, I am simply pointing out an example in which a lever we use quite effectively to meet one goal (enrollment) might well be creating an obstacle that limits our ability to meet another goal (retention).  I suppose one could argue that we should consider offering an additional sport or two so that athletics could still recruit the same overall number of students while reducing the average roster size of the individual sports. However, that depends on whether the increased costs of an additional sport (salaries, facilities, operating funds) would be offset by a potential increase in retention of students who came to Augustana with the intention of playing a sport. Obviously this is a pretty sticky question without a clear answer.

Again, my point here is only to highlight a trade-off – one that might be entirely legitimate – where we meet one set of goals in a way that potentially increases the difficulty of meeting another set of goals. Optimizing our retention rate is about finding our sweet spot. It’s not just about moving individual levers. That is what makes it so incredibly challenging – especially when we are trying to squeeze the last drops of optimizing out of something that we already do comparatively pretty well.

Make it a good day.  And enjoy the holiday.

Mark

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