It’s no secret that students who choose to attend Augustana College (or for that matter, any other private liberal arts college like us) make a substantial financial commitment to their undergraduate education. As numerous economic trends over the last decade have combined to squeeze most families’ financial resources, this commitment has increasingly come under pressure to produce results. In examining our own data, it has become more and more clear that this financial pressure also contributes to students’ decision to persist or withdraw after the first year. In recent years, we’ve noted the large subpopulation of departing students who leave with a respectable, if not enviable, GPA after their first year. At the same time, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of students who claim that financial issues are a significant reason for their choice to depart.
In preparation for the incoming cohort of 2014, Augustana developed a financial aid program called “Close the Gap” to help those students who appeared to need some extra financial assistance to attend Augustana. By now, many of you know of this program. Many of you contributed to it. And the story of its success has been well documented, with about 100 freshmen in the class of 2014 receiving some assistance from this endeavor.
But with all warm and fuzzy stories of philanthropy comes the stickier question. Is this program actually effective? Does it affect more than the initial decision to attend Augustana? Specifically, would it have any impact on these students’ decision to return after their first year and continue toward graduation?
This is a tough thing to test because it’s hard to find a legitimate comparison group. We didn’t (and wouldn’t) create some sort of shadow “control” group within the first year class of students who needed the money but didn’t get it. And we can’t really compare these Augustana students with similar students at other institutions because 1) we don’t have access to those institutions’ data, and 2) those students didn’t choose Augustana so their first year experience isn’t similar. In the end, the only plausible and reasonable way to test the success of this program was to identify students from prior cohorts who would have likely been offered Close the Gap funds if such a program existed and then see if the first-to-second year retention rates of these students differed from the rate of the students who actually received Close the Gap funds.
This plan gets dicey, too, because very little stays exactly the same in the world of recruitment and enrollment. Scholarship amounts change, patterns of classifying the interest level of prospective student change, and the individuals who actually do the recruiting change. Nonetheless, although this approach might not gets us to an exact apples-to-apples comparison, it does get us within a pickpocket’s reach of the same fruit stand. (Yeah, I made that up.)
So here are the retention rates of students who likely would have received Close the Gap funds in 2012 and 2013, compared with the students who received those funds in 2014.
- 2012 Cohort – 77.8%
- 2013 Cohort – 77.3%
- 2014 Cohort – 88.2%
There are some pretty good reasons to take this finding with a grain of salt. First, we have instituted a number of other campus-wide programs and support systems to assist our retention efforts. Second, when we put the Close the Gap program in place we also set in motion an increased effort to track these students, which in turn likely increased our inclination to informally support these particular students during their first year. Third, every incoming class is different and the overall make up of the 2014 group may well have fortified the environment most conducive to these students’ success.
Yet, even with all of these caveats in mind, an 11 percentage point swing is big. In tracking the retention rates of many different subpopulations of students (e.g., race/ethnic categories, gender, first generation status, etc.), we never see a swing that large between two years, especially if the two years prior are almost identical.
I think it’s reasonable to suggest that the Close the Gap program has improved the retention rate of students with this particular level of need, and it appears that this improvement did contribute to an increase in our overall retention rate between last year and this year. This is certainly cause for celebration. We seem to be getting better at addressing the different needs of different types of students.
Yes, we’ve got plenty more work to do. And we are diving into those challenges, too. But for today, I think it’s o.k. to smile, celebrate some success, and give a shout-out to the folks who initiated and continue to raise the funds for this program. Thanks and Congrats!
Make it a good day,