This paper was originally distributed as a 2009 Strategic Enrollment Manangement Conference pre-Conference paper.
It’s now nearly ten years since I started participating in and presenting at national conferences related to strategic enrollment management (SEM). Having entered this profession with nearly 20 years of experience in transitional initiatives related to the first-year experience and academic advisement services, I have perceived an essential need for enrollment management conceptual and organizational models to focus more intentionally and purposefully on efforts related to improving student learning, success, and persistence. Oftentimes, SEM still is viewed from a conventional lens comprising marketing, recruitment and admissions, financial aid, and registrar-related student services functions.
Hossler (2005) notes that SEM retention efforts often have resulted in a “laundry list” approach to improving student persistence and that higher education institutions do not systemically assess the impact of these efforts. By design, this white paper is intended to consciously connect dialogue about improving student learning and persistence to an institution’s SEM efforts. It is my hope that this work will serve as a resource for those considering the complex task of systemically integrating efforts to improve student success and persistence with the more traditional institution-based strategic enrollment management enterprise. I hope to show through this process that a holistic SEM enterprise is greater than a laundry list of its programs and services.
Student Persistence Is a Complex Challenge
Higher education nomenclature includes many terms for describing student success. “Retention,” “persistence,” “attrition,” “student departure,” and “improving student learning” are used synonymously to refer to whether students succeed in college. The literature on student retention and attrition is prolific with details on why and when students leave college. Tinto’s (1975, 1993) landmark studies have shaped how researchers and practitioners alike have come to understand the issue of student persistence. Having prompted nearly 35 years of dialogue on student retention and persistence in higher education, his attrition model, in particular, has become a foundation for most research regarding student persistence. Pascarella and Terenzini’s (1991, 2005) significant evidence links students’ first-year academic performance to both persistence and degree completion. Astin’s (1977, 1985) research details the connections of student involvement to student persistence. More than 30 years of research now exists on factors which influence student persistence and degree attainment, yet issues of student retention and persistence continue to be as pertinent today as they were in 1975, when Tinto first published his student integration model.
Swail (2001), in “The Art of Retention,” notes that in the 1970s and 1980s, public policy was focused primarily on access, with federal and state legislation aimed at reducing barriers to higher education. By the mid 1990s, this discussion moved from access to issues of choice, affordability, and persistence. Since 2000, much attention has been given to improving student success and learning and assessment in their first year and throughout the student’s undergraduate experience. Today’s public agenda is daunting: creating a culture for institutional and departmental assessment; improving institutional transparency and accountability; improving evidence-based decision-making efforts; reducing the costs of higher education; and increasing the numbers of higher education graduates, especially those from traditionally underrepresented and low-income groups.
Approximately 18.3 million students are attending higher education institutions this fall, representing an increase of nearly 3 million since fall 2000 (NCES 2009). Despite this incredible increase, the reality is that one of every two students still will not complete a degree. Often, the graduation rate of an institution is used to define “student success.” Because public policy focuses on graduation rates, they seem to be the measure on which most people rely for determining student success. However, it is important to note that graduation rate is “one number in time” commonly used for a particular group of students who enter higher education as “first-time full-time students.” Unfortunately, many students are not in college long enough to realize the benefits of a college education. On average, four-year colleges and universities lose 29 percent of their first-year students before those students start their second year (ACT 2008). Student persistence research shows that of those students who leave higher education, most leave in the first year of college–especially during the first semester–with some leaving even during the first few weeks on campus (Tinto 1993).
Although the focus of this paper is not to highlight the amount of time students take to graduate, I thought I would draw your attention to some findings from the recent longitudinal study prepared by the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) (2009). The DQC study shows that on average, first-time recipients of bachelor’s degrees in 1999–2000 who had not stopped out of college for 6 months or more took approximately 55 months from first enrollment to degree completion. Additionally, the DQC study showed that graduates who had attended multiple institutions took longer to complete a degree. For example, those who attended only one institution averaged 51 months from postsecondary entry to completion of a bachelor’s degree, compared with 59 months for those who attended two institutions and 67 months for those who attended three or more institutions. This pattern was found among graduates of both public and private not-for-profit institutions.
The DQC also studied other factors related to time to degree completion. As parents’ education increases, the average time to degree completion decreases. As age and length of time between high school graduation and postsecondary entry increase, time to degree completion also increases. Further, the study shows that higher grade-point averages were associated with a shorter time to degree completion among graduates of public institutions but not among graduates of private not-for-profit institutions. The DQC study also examined data on transfer students from two-year colleges: Students who transferred took about a year and a half longer to complete a bachelor’s degree than students who began at public 4-year institutions (71 vs. 55 months) and almost two years longer than those who began at private not-for-profit four-year institutions (50 months). The type of institution from which graduates received a degree also was related to time to degree: graduates of public institutions averaged about 6 months longer to complete a degree than graduates of private not-for-profit institutions (57 vs. 51 months). Many institutions today are tracking graduation rates at four, five, and six years; a number of institutions also are tracking the graduation rates of their transfer-in students. The DQC study has produced useful information in helping us to understand degree completion data.
Retention and graduation rates are significant means by which university effectiveness is measured. We have known for years that students leave college for varying reasons and that their persistence is affected by pre-entry attributes, goals and commitments, institutional experiences, and academic and social integration factors (Tinto 1993). We know too that some students who leave an institution will go on to achieve success at another institution. We know that institutions are different from one another and that some institutions may have more part-time “mobile” students. And we know that many students who enter our campuses today are non-traditional and may choose to attend college on a part-time basis. Regardless of the type of student or institution, the pressure is on to enhance student success and persistence-to-degree rates and to account for these results in the public domain.
The study of student persistence is indeed a complex issue. While postsecondary enrollment has increased to more than 18 million students, efforts to improve student persistence to graduation remain challenging. Federal and state government agencies as well as public college and university state systems have embraced this issue because the “institutional graduation rate” has held at a constant 50 percent for most of the past half century. As “one number in time,” the graduation rate represents only first-time full-time students–not students who transfer to and obtain degrees from other higher education institutions. It is not uncommon for today’s millennial student to attend multiple institutions before obtaining a degree. Graduation rates also do not take into consideration the non-traditional part-time student whose college attendance behavior often reveals a “stop-in-stop-out” enrollment pattern. Ask yourself how many transfer students your institution enrolls on an annual basis. The institution by which I am employed enrolls nearly 900 transfer students annually; they comprise nearly 35 percent of the institution’s new enrollment annually. Only about half of these students transfer from community colleges; the other half transfer from more than 100 baccalaureate-granting institutions annually.
While national college enrollments have increased over the years, other changes also have occurred—for example, in the nature of the student body and in the pathways to and through postsecondary education. Colleges and universities confront issues related to academic preparedness, greater diversity, stop-in/stop-out college-enrollment patterns, and many others not mentioned here. Data from the “Beginning Postsecondary Student Survey” (BPS:03/04) provides some insight into the student persistence debate:
Attainment and persistence at any institution through 2006:
- 83 percent of beginning students who first enrolled full time in a postsecondary institution in 2003–04 with plans for a bachelor’s degree were still enrolled at a postsecondary institution three years later;
- 62 percent of beginning students who first enrolled at a public two-year institution in 2003–04 and then transferred to another institution had not yet attained a degree and were still enrolled at some postsecondary institution three years later;
- 50 percent of beginning independent students who first enrolled at a four-year institution in 2003–04 had not attained a degree and were no longer enrolled three years later.
Attainment and retention at the first institution attended:
- 70 percent of beginning students who enrolled full time at a postsecondary institution in 2003–04 with plans for a bachelor’s degree were still enrolled at their first postsecondary institution without a degree three years later; 4 percent had attained a degree or certificate at their first institution; 20 percent had transferred elsewhere without a degree, and 7 percent had left the first institution attended without a degree or certificate and did not enroll anywhere else within three years.
- Among students first enrolled at a public two-year institution in 2003–04 with associate degree plans, 23 percent attained an associate degree from that institution, 31 percent were still enrolled there without a degree, 24 percent had transferred elsewhere without a degree, and 21 percent had not attained a degree and were not enrolled there or anywhere else three years later.
- One-quarter of all students who enter postsecondary education for the first time end up at another institution before attaining a postsecondary degree.
- Almost half (46 percent) of first-time students who left their initial institution by the end of the first year never came back to postsecondary education.
- Students who attended full time or whose attendance was continuous were much more likely to achieve their degree goals than other students. However, only about two-thirds of students were continuously enrolled;
- 50 percent of four-year students who did not delay entry into college earned their degree at their first institution, compared to only 27 percent of students who were delayed entrants;
- 42 percent of students whose first-year grade point average was 2.25 or less left postsecondary education permanently.
The data from this study support earlier studies indicating that continuous enrollment at the initial institution, full-time attendance, and more thorough academic preparation are key factors related to degree attainment.
Longitudinal studies have shown that first-time full-time student graduation rates changed little despite widespread and concerted efforts by many colleges and universities to increase them. ACT (2008) reports that the gaps in performance and persistence rates seem to endure despite significant institutional programming and service efforts to close them. Conversely, it is important to note that while retention rates have not improved over the last 30 years, neither did they decline. This is noteworthy considering both the increase in enrollment nationally and the diminished college readiness of incoming students during this time.
So what can institutions do to positively impact student success and learning such that student persistence and degree attainment are improved? A substantial degree of prescriptive literature exists to guide campus leaders in making decisions regarding the different types of programming and student support experiences being used to enhance the quality of students’ education (Upcraft et al. 2005). Many higher education institutions today offer an extensive catalog of student support services in the form of new student orientation, academic support services, tutoring, supplemental instruction, early alert programs, freshman seminar, learning community course clustering, living and learning community environments, developmental and proactive academic advising, proactive career counseling, leadership programming, community service learning, multicultural programming, developmental course work, mentoring programs, and many other programming initiatives. Many of our institutions have advanced their efforts by segmenting services to meet specific students’ needs (e.g., academically underprepared, underrepresented, student athletes, honor students, non-traditional students, residential students, commuter students, first-year, transfer, and other student groups). Many institutions work hard to retain students, typically relying on strategies that hinge upon their first-year experience. However, successful student persistence is not just a first-year issue: It is a multi-year issue that cuts across every year of a student’s undergraduate experience.
Case Studies of Interest on Improving Retention and Graduation
I focus here on two major studies of student retention. The first was conducted in 2002, when the Lumina for Education Foundation sponsored a research study which looked at retention practices at 19 public and private institutions that serve low-income students; half had a high six-year graduation rate and half had a low six-year graduation rate. The second study was conducted in 2005–06 and focused on the collaborative efforts of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), The Education Trust (Ed Trust), and The National Association of System Heads (NASH), which together sponsored a study to help campuses understand the reasons that some public four-year colleges and universities have an unusually good record of retaining and graduating students.
In the Lumina-sponsored study, teams met with presidents and CEOs, faculty, staff, and, most important, students (Swail 2001). Swail notes that they visited special programs and tried to get a feel for the climate and atmosphere on campus. The research team expected to find that schools with high graduation rates would have dedicated staff, would be committed to retaining students, and would utilize tried-and-true teaching and learning strategies that make a difference in the learning atmosphere and social climate of the institution. The researchers found what they expected. However, they were astonished to also find what they really didn’t want to find: Resources trumped all other factors. That is, they found that institutions with resources could implement almost any strategy they wanted to. And perhaps more important in so far as the retention debate was concerned, those institutions with resources were able to attract more qualified and competitive students—students who almost surely were going to graduate from college, even if they were from low-income backgrounds. Swail notes that lower-performing schools had staff at least as or even more dedicated than those at better performing schools and that they offered a high-quality education. Nevertheless, institutions with resources were able to use them to make the difference in who came, who stayed, and who completed a degree.
The second study sought to investigate the reasons that some public four-year colleges and universities have unusually good retention and graduation rates. A study team visited the twelve campuses selected for the study and submitted a campus report for each. The campus reports then were analyzed, and the final report was written by Peter Ewell of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, with the assistance and collaboration of team leaders, project directors, and others. The stories told about these colleges and universities underscore the diversity of successful approaches to retaining and graduating students. Half of the study institutions had recently raised their admissions requirements—surely a contributing factor in their success. But the other six had not changed admissions practices appreciably and yet still reported high graduation rates. What really distinguishes many of these campuses is the pervasive belief that demography is not destiny: all of the students they admit have the potential to graduate, and they all should be held to high levels of expectation. Good performance is not just the province of small, selective institutions. Clearly, the single most important lesson relates to the significance of institutional culture in shaping the day-to-day behavior of faculty and staff in their interactions with students. Consistent behavior builds retention—as one report put it, “one student at a time.”
Factors Related to Retention
A number of factors related to retention have been found in the research literature over the last 30 years.
Academic Preparedness. Academic integration and preparation are primary features of many models of retention. Research shows that between 30 and 40 percent of all entering freshman are unprepared for college-level reading and writing, and approximately 44 percent of all college students who complete a two- or four-year degree had enrolled in at least one remedial/developmental course in math, writing, or reading.
Campus Climate. While researchers agree that “institutional fit” and campus integration are important to retaining college students to degree completion, campus climate mediates undergraduates’ academic and social experiences in college. Minority and low-income students inadequately prepared for non-academic challenges can experience culture shock. Lack of diversity in the student population, faculty, staff, and curriculum, specifically with regard to income and race/ethnicity, often restrict the nature and quality of minority students’ interactions within and outside of the classroom, threatening their academic performance and social experiences.
Commitment to Educational Goals and the Institution. Tinto (1993) hypothesizes that students’ commitment to their occupational and educational goals, as well as their commitment to the institution at which they enroll, significantly influence college performance and persistence outcomes: The stronger the goal and institutional commitment, the more likely the student will graduate. Research shows that congruence between student goals and institutional mission is mediated by academic and social components and that increased integration into academic and social campus communities results in greater institutional commitment and student persistence.
Social and Academic Integration. The process of becoming integrated into the social fabric of a university also has been found to be both a cumulative and compounding process: that is, the level of social integration within a given year of study is part of a cumulative experience that continues to build throughout one’s college experience. Establishing peer relations and developing role models and mentors have both been identified in the literature as important factors in student integration, academically and socially.
Financial Aid. Attending college and persisting to degree completion most often is rewarded with higher annual and lifetime earnings. But for many low-income and minority students, enrollment and persistence decisions are driven by the availability of financial aid.
Source: The Art of Retention, Swail, 2001
What Can Institutions Do to Improve Student Progress and Persistence?
The following section of the white paper, which concentrates on what institutions can do to improve student progress and persistence through improved student services, was shaped and inspired by the research cited above, by my work at Slippery Rock University, and through consultations with a number of other institutions. Apart from improving institutional selectivity and admissions requirements and lowering the cost of obtaining a higher education degree through improved financial aid programs and scholarship opportunities, institutions still have much control over the outreach and support services provided to students once they are admitted and enrolled. Rather than provide a fragmented laundry list of recommended support services or best practices identifying specific programmatic experiences, I provide some helpful strategies, questions to ponder, and thoughts for reflection on how an institution may work to enhance efforts to improve student learning and persistence.
Each of our institutions is accountable for improving student learning and success. We can achieve these goals by using strategies to engage more with our students; to identify their needs earlier; to track student progress and persistence; to measure and assess the impact of these efforts; and to use evidence to justify the need for additional resources. At the institution by which I am employed, we have worked collaboratively, intentionally, and purposefully to find ways to improve student engagement, involvement, and student learning. First- to second year retention rates have increased from 70 percent in 2000 to more than 80 percent in 2009. Improved student persistence has led in turn to increased graduation rates. Given today’s economic conditions, which pose even greater fiscal and operational challenges and which limit the use of already scarce resources, it is even more important for our institutions to channel energies toward improving student learning and success. Doing so will lead to positive outcomes with regard to student progress and persistence.
The following strategies, questions, and thoughts for further reflection are intended to help us focus on ways we can improve student learning and success on our campuses.
1. Articulate a Collective Vision and Mission
How student-centered are your institutional vision, mission, and/or core value statements? Do these represent more than statements preserved either on a bookshelf in a well-written document or on your institution’s Web site? In what ways can you provide evidence that your campus is committed to improving student learning and success? Are specific groups or individual(s) on your campus responsible for coordinating programming and service initiatives related to improving student learning and success? How do departments and individuals work in partnership with one another?
Institutional vision, mission, and goal statements should articulate and address our desire to enhance student learning and success. Our desire to graduate students and to create an educated citizenry should be inherent in everything we do. Vision, mission, and goal statements often include language related to “providing educational excellence,” “advancing students’ intellectual growth,” “connecting students to a diverse world,” and “offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate academic programs,” all of which are intrinsically related to student persistence. Teams in the AASCU study (2005) frequently reported that the institution’s “mission” was seen less as a written document than as a shared belief system and code of conduct embraced by faculty and staff. Central to these institutions was a clear sense of institutional purpose focused on fostering student learning and success. Many of the institutions noted that this sense of shared purpose helped reinforce a culture focused on serving current students.
2. Invest in the Culture and Leadership
Does your campus have a culture focused on student learning and success? What evidence do you have to demonstrate this across departments and divisions? In what ways can you develop the culture to enhance its efforts to improve student learning and success? How does your institution engage leaders (e.g., faculty, administrators, support staff, and students) across campus in the effort to help improve student learning and success?
Each of our campuses has a distinctive and multiple cultures. Ask yourself whether your campus culture embodies a value for improving student learning and success. At least three key elements of campus culture could be distinguished at the institutions in the AASCU study (2005): First, the AASCU study teams noted a pervasive attitude that all students can succeed; this belief was reinforced by a wider culture that was not content to rest on past success. Second, the study teams found a sense of inclusiveness on the part of all members of the campus community—a group they frequently characterized as a “family.” Finally, the study teams found a strongly held sense of institutional mission that recognized the campus as “distinctive” or “special.” Investing in the culture to nurture and support a student-centric environment is critical to enhancing efforts to improve student learning and success.
Leadership at multiple levels of an institution can help shape the culture by valuing and recognizing institutional, departmental, and individual achievements and successes as they relate to improving efforts focused on student learning and success. The process is represented through a responsibility that is shared at each institutional level and that is deeply embedded in the way an institution works on a day-to-day basis. The AASCU study, in particular, has shown that presidential qualities needed to build and sustain a campus’s culture and organizational processes are more about listening than talking and more about consistent personal modeling. At many of the campuses in this study, top leaders had held their positions for a long time and had been very consistent in their actions. Reflecting on the idea of shared responsibility across departments and divisions, boundary spanning was simply part of the way the institution did business, commonly without a great deal of visible organization or authority.
Campuses making a difference in improving student learning and persistence to graduation seem to do everything in their power to provide students with the support they need to succeed and to build students’ sense of personal responsibility for their own achievement (AASCU 2005). Leadership across these institutions set targets that can be met; provide support and examples to meet them; then raise the bar yet another notch. The AASCU study showed that institutional leadership can alter the way people look at their own institution. Presidents, especially, can raise a topic like building and improving a student learning success-oriented culture. Various levels of leadership across an institution can help by keeping people talking about it long enough to foster a shared sense of ownership and responsibility; they also can help make the process work by focusing on specific interactions and behaviors that lead to increasing collaboration and partnership for improving the student experience.
3. Plan and Act Strategically
Does your institution have a plan for improving student learning and success? How is this plan used as a measure of institutional performance? How are the goals communicated across campus? How are the results of assessments and measures of student learning outcomes, persistence, engagement, and satisfaction reflected in the plan? How are these types of assessments used at the department level? For example, if you are using measures of student engagement, how are experiences created to facilitate student-faculty engagement outside of the classroom, and how are faculty encouraged to participate in these types of activities?
Perhaps the most typical institutional response to an identified need or challenge is to add a new program or activity to address it. The resulting additive actions affect many areas of college and university life, but perhaps most of all, programming directed at retention and student success. Planning an effort designed to improve student learning and success is a complex process and should include integrated review of student recruitment and persistence goals, learning outcomes goals, engagement goals, and satisfaction goals. Have you ever participated in a strategic planning retreat in which retention goals were set as annual numerical increments despite the lack of defined, agreed-upon strategies or tactics for achieving the goals?
The AASCU study noted two questions that leaders should ask before adding a new program: First, how will the initiative help build or reinforce the wider culture of student success the institution has to sustain? Second, how will the proposed initiative position the institution to take the next step? Successful academic, social, and personal intervention initiatives require a comprehensive planning effort. Current services and programs should be reviewed on a regular basis to determine their effectiveness. Services that matter or that seem to have a positive impact on student learning and success should be improved and supported. And meaningful assessment and outcomes results should guide future directions and should be made transparent to the campus community.
4. Use Data and Meaningful Assessments as Sources of Evidence
How does your institution collect and share student information, including: (1) new and continuing enrollment data; (2) student pre-enrollment characteristics, attitudes, and behavior; (3) student persistence and progression data; (4) student engagement, involvement, and satisfaction results; and (5) student learning outcomes? Does your institution use peer comparisons and national benchmarks for examining the data, assessment, and survey results? How does your campus use the assessment outcomes and results to inform decisions and specific actions?
Institutions must have easily accessible and accurate information if they are to strategically manage student enrollment data and assessment and survey results. Our institutions have massive amounts of information available, but if that information can’t be used to personalize services, strengthen relationships, support processes, or make decisions, then the value of the data is diminished. Today, an increasing number of colleges and universities are depending on portal-based reporting solutions so that key individuals across campus may access student information and communicate it to key users. Different levels of personnel have specific and differing needs to accurately identify trends, pinpoint areas that need improvement/intervention, and build relationships with students.
In older technology systems, data often are quickly outdated and incomplete, especially by the time a report is produced in response to a specific query. Frequently, good information is not sought if it is difficult to obtain. At other times, institutional data may not be “clean,” with the result that common queries result in disparate answers. In these circumstances, floods of static print reports pile up on an individual’s desk, resulting in confusion rather than insight. Using timely data on students at crucial college transitions is important for determining successful academic and student life experiences and challenges, including the progress of different student groups (e.g., first year, transfer, non-traditional, residential, commuter, underrepresented, honors, underprepared, etc.). Institutions today can monitor student persistence earlier and throughout students’ entire college experience.
So how do we use technology solutions today to process and to measure meaningful outcomes and to foster organizational and financial efficiency? We see increased interest in “actionable intelligence” (Kilgore 2009), which includes business intelligence tools such as dynamic reporting and dashboard reports needed to inform evidence-based decision making. Kilgore (2009) notes that this need exists in a dynamic environment where the technologies we use are constantly evolving, as are student, faculty, and staff expectations of service. Many institutions today are seeking technologies and processes that use data to understand and analyze their performance. These types of tools provide insight into institutional performance rather than an account of its transactions.
Often referred to as Business Intelligence (BI), these tools include data access, reporting, and analytics. They commonly draw data from multiple sources (e.g., institutional data, national survey results, department assessments, and other data sources) and provide users with sophisticated models for analysis. Analytics refers to extensive use of data, statistical and quantitative analysis, explanatory and predictive models, and other fact-based reporting used to drive decisions and actions. Older data systems had tools that were more transactional in nature. They answered questions such as “What happened, who did it, and when did it happen?” Newer BI tools answer questions such as “Why did it happen, how will it happen in the future, and what can we do about it?” The answers to these types of questions help us improve institutional effectiveness, service, and performance.
Some colleges and universities are beginning to use newer portal reporting systems to disseminate information on student persistence, academic progress, engagement and involvement, and satisfaction. Such systems provide users at all levels of the institution with the information they need, in the format they need, at the time they need it. Newer business intelligence software enables data to be leveraged in existing systems and combined with other data sources; as a result, key personnel across multiple levels of the institution can access, analyze, and glean greater value from the data as they improve their decision-making processes.
Important data points should be compared with peers’ benchmarks. Programs and services can be improved through the identification of strengths and challenges.
Examples of Using Data and Communications as Evidence for Making Programmatic and Service Decisions and Creating a Need for Interventions:
- How does your institution communicate its emphasis on student learning, success, and persistence with students and families throughout the recruitment and pre-enrollment processes? How do you work across departments and divisions to provide a comprehensive message that meets the needs of a number of departments so that students and families perceive the enrollment process as seamless?
- During the summer prior to fall enrollment, what percent of your institution’s first-time full-time students participated in your orientation programming (insert any program used by your institution to orient students to campus)? How does your institution engage with students and families (if appropriate to your institution) to encourage their participation in the programming experience? Does your institution use multiple strategies to communicate the value of this programming to a new student? Do you know what percent of students who attend orientation matriculate to the institution in the fall? Does your institution experience a “melt” from orientation? How does your institution communicate with students who attended orientation and registered for classes but who do not matriculate in the fall semester? How does your institution determine why such students do not matriculate? How does your institution work with students who matriculate in the fall but who did not attend orientation? Do incoming students have schedule loads and course selections that meet their needs and abilities?
Early Intervention and Support Service Questions
- During the fall semester, what percent of your institution’s first-time full-time students (insert any group of students, e.g., transfer, residential, commuter, underprepared, underrepresented, part time) participated in your freshman seminar program (insert any program determined to have a relationship with connecting the student to campus or improving student engagement/involvement, e.g., participation in tutoring, learning community program, academic advising assistance, early intervention experiences, academic support services, living/learning community experience, leadership programming, athletic study experiences, and other student support programs)? What impact does this program have on a student’s academic and/or social integration? How do you study the differences between those students who engage in your institution’s freshman seminar program (insert any program, as above) and those who do not? How do you determine the impact of these programs on specific groups of students (academically underprepared, underrepresented, student athletics, residential, commuter, online, traditional, and non-traditional)? Do students who participate have a higher rate of persistence, progress, credits earned, engagement and involvement?
Academic Progress Questions
- What type of early intervention strategies does your institution use to track academic, personal, or social challenges? Does this strategy focus on class attendance, participation, and academic progress?
- Do you review periodically the D, F, W, and I rates for the highest enrollment courses for your first-year students?
- How does your institution track withdrawals? Course withdrawals?
- How often does your institution track persistence throughout the term? Does it track mid-year persistence each year of a student’s experience?
- Does your institution assign mid-term grades for first-year students? Who receives copies of the grades, and who is responsible for intervening with students at risk? How do you intervene with students who have lower grades? Does your academic support services program reach out to students with lower grades?
- Once your registration period begins for the next term, how does your institution track persistence to the next term through the registration process? How does it intervene with students who have not registered?
- Once final grades are assigned, who intervenes with students who have experienced academic challenges during their first semester? Who reviews their scheduling for the second semester to determine appropriate course selections (e.g., repeating courses, altering course load, etc.)?
- If economic conditions result in students’ stopping out, how does your institution maintain a relationship with such students so they consider re-enrolling in the future?
- Does your institution advise students who have stopped out to enroll in online courses or courses at less costly institutions, such as local community colleges, in order to stay connected to higher education?
- How might your institution advise students with lower grade point averages to consider enrolling in online or community college courses in order to improve their academic performance and obtain credits?
- How do you connect with students who have withdrawn from your institution in an effort to support their further pursuit of higher education?
Overall Support Program Assessment Questions
- How does your institution assess the programs and services determined to have an impact on improving student learning and success, engagement and involvement, and progress and persistence? What are the specific measures used to assess the program’s effectiveness and efficiency? How does your institution use assessments which measure specific student learning outcomes related to program goals? How are the results used for improving program effectiveness? How are the results communicated across campus? Are regular program reviews in place? How often do they occur? How are the results used to improve program success or to redistribute resources?
These questions reflect only a sample of the types of data and assessment information that can be used for decision making and the types of proactive positive interventions that can be made with students to intentionally and purposefully improve their learning and success. It is at least as important to move from mere data-based evidence to using the evidence to intervene with students to improve their engagement, involvement, and learning; this in turn leads to students’ improved performance and persistence. Building an information infrastructure capable of simultaneously monitoring progress and providing detailed feedback about what is working for which student populations is critical to improving student learning and success. By assessing the impact of each program, service, or activity, an institution can allocate its scarce resources in ways that best meet students’ needs.
It also is important for campuses to build a transparent and visible “culture of evidence” which requires attention to data and student progress and achievement. It is crucial to determine who needs assistance on campus–academically, socially, or financially–and to target these students for services early in their collegiate experience. It is important to link the evidence gained on persistence and progress with resources and budget and to invest in experiences that contribute to student engagement, involvement, and learning.
An institution can do many things to improve student learning and success. It is imperative that institutions provide the necessary programming, strategies, and interventions to help students succeed not only in their first year of college but also in each and every year the student is enrolled. Because the issues and needs of students evolve throughout their college experience, strategies should not be duplicated each year. Today, it does not seem to be a question of whether institutions are providing such services; many do. Rather, the question to be asked is whether institutions ensure that their services of high quality. Does your institution deliver services to the students who need them at the time at which they need them? For example, hanging a sign that reads “academic advising,” or “student leadership programs,” or “retention services,” or “career counseling” doesn’t do the job. Instead, institutions must work to identify students who can benefit from the high-quality services and programming available at the time students need them in order to improve their learning and success.
5. Engage and Partner with Faculty
How does your campus promote excellence in undergraduate teaching? How does your institution develop faculty for instruction, advising, and engaging with students outside of the classroom? How do out-of-classroom programs and services which are determined to have an impact on student learning and success partner with faculty?
A significant influence on a student’s engagement and involvement in school is interaction with faculty. As Austin (1993) explains, increasing student and faculty interaction both inside and outside the classroom fosters student development and increases the likelihood that students will be satisfied with their experience at the institution. Student-faculty engagement encourages students to devote greater effort to other educationally purposeful activities (Kuh and Hu 2001). Faculty become role models, mentors, and guides for continuous lifelong learning (Kezar and Kinzie 2006 ).
There are a number of potential positive outcomes of linking faculty involvement to efforts to improve student progress and persistence. While a single encounter is unlikely to forge a meaningful relationship, creating a culture for faculty engagement in the total SEM experience is critical. Because they are the content experts of our institutions’ academic programs, faculty can and should become integral partners in your efforts to improve student learning and persistence. Many campuses already use strategies designed to connect faculty to recruitment efforts by involving them in marketing initiatives, on-campus interviews, small group department sessions, large visitation information sessions, informational fairs, open houses, academic camps and summer enrichment programs, and early summer college experiences. Because faculty are engaged directly in students’ in-class experiences, it seems consistent and natural to involve faculty in an effort to advance SEM efforts toward improving student learning and persistence.
Outside of the classroom, faculty can serve an important role in an institution’s student retention efforts. Following are a dozen recommended strategies designed to connect faculty to retention efforts: Faculty can (1) participate in new student orientation activities by leading advisement and academic transition sessions; (2) lead small-group discussions related to a summer reading provided through the orientation process; (3) interact with students at a reception following a new student convocation in order to provide students with information about their disciplines and related careers; (4) serve as advisors and mentors to first-year students; (5) serve as sponsors or advisors to student clubs and organizations; (6) serve as sponsors of department clubs for new students interested in or majoring in their field; (7) sponsor service-learning experiences for students in areas relating to their academic discipline; (8) visit student residences in order to conduct small-group discussions related to course content, test-review sessions, tutoring, or academic advising; (9) avail themselves as interviewees for new students enrolled in a first-year experience course; (10) create opportunities for faculty-student research teams; (11) meet with other faculty advisors who work with exploratory students to identify the key features of their majors and minors; and (12) meet with residence life coordinators/advisors to discuss strategic study tips and active learning strategies that may be useful to students.
What else can campuses do to involve faculty in student retention initiatives? First, avoid 800-pound gorilla language (i.e., retention) and connect faculty and all of your retention efforts to improving student engagement, involvement, and learning outcomes. High-level administrators need to be involved in and must support these efforts. Public comments in faculty assemblies, campus news and communications, and student retention–related committees need to highlight the importance of these efforts. It is important to engage faculty in retention-related activities that leverage their passion and knowledge base in their discipline. It is important to show that their contributions to improving student learning and success makes a difference. Provide data demonstrating the results. Share data on student engagement (NSSE) and student satisfaction surveys; make such data relevant and meaningful by preparing them at the department or program level (whenever appropriate). Share thank you letters from students and families. Nominate a faculty member for an all-star award or special recognition, or support faculty from departments to attend national conferences related to improving student learning and success. Meaningful recognition of faculty contributions is significant. What do faculty on your campus consider to be meaningful recognition? Consider how your campus recognizes and rewards faculty for their involvement. In addition, consider how your institution assists faculty in improving their teaching and learning practices. Does your institution have a place on campus where faculty can learn about different pedagogies, teaching practices, learning styles, and assessment tools? Faculty are busy: They need to know that their engagement is highly valued and that it is in the best interest of the institution and its students.
6. Consider How Your Institution Might Draw on Best Practices and Strategies
What programs, activities, and support services comprise your institution’s efforts for improving student success? How do these services meet the needs of specific student groups (e.g., residential, commuter, traditional, non-traditional, first year, upper division, underrepresented, academically underprepared, and others)? How does your institution connect students to these programs? At which points in students’ experience are they connected to these programs? How do students connect with their major departments and academic advisors? How are students’ academic advisement needs met on your campus?
Take stock of the programs, activities, and support services that comprise your institution’s focus on improving student learning and success. A number of benefits stem from this process, as the AASCU study (2005) demonstrates. First, it might reveal a healthy, student-centered culture. Second, it may reveal pockets of success in relatively unconnected programs or initiatives. Finally, taking stock may reveal a campus culture that does not fundamentally value graduation as a goal. Depending on the findings at your institution, campus leaders will need to nurture and sustain success, work to integrate the successful pockets, or promote the value of a culture of student success.
In considering best practices, it is important to find out what other institutions are doing and how they are assessing these efforts. Borrow as much as possible, but stop there. Each college and university is unique. Strategies used to improve student learning and success should be tailored to each particular campus’s culture and students’ needs. While, you don’t need to reinvent the whole wheel, it is important to consider how best to adapt the new program or service to meet the needs of your students and how to engage the campus culture in this process. Simply identifying best practices somewhere and “plugging them in” is not likely to prove effective.
Experience has led me to believe that the best programs are intentional and purposeful in design and delivery, integrated in effort, and collaborative with other departments on campus. These strategies need to meet specific students’ needs at the individual institution. While I have avoided including a laundry list of best practices in this paper, it is clear that many campuses rely on best practices to enhance student learning and success. These practices certainly play a significant role on our campuses, and they do consume valuable resources, so it is even more critical given higher education’s current economic condition that these practices are evaluated regularly to be certain that they are meeting students’ needs.
7. Review Institutional Policies and Procedures
How often does your institution review policies and procedures related to student success, persistence, and progress? What specific policies and procedures on your campus have an impact on student learning, progress, or persistence?
Often, specific institutional policies and processes are not examined for their impact on student learning and success. Can you think of an academic policy or process on your campus that may not contribute positively to improving student learning and success? What evidence can you provide that this specific policy or practice does not have a positive impact on student learning and success? What is the process for changing the policy or process?
Strategies for improving student persistence and graduation rates can be influenced by our institutions’ academic policies. Consider the following questions:
What is the impact of your institution’s registration practices on student progress? Are sufficient courses available to meet students’ major program and general education needs? Are students advised as to specific college requirements and appropriate course scheduling?
What impact do your drop/add policy, course withdrawal policy, repeat policy, and incomplete grade policy have on student progression? What impact do your academic probation, suspension, and readmission policies have on student persistence?
How useful and reader friendly is your college catalog with regard to institutional policies, practices, and procedures? Such information should be located in a central place and/or on your institution’s Web site; its logical order or sequence should enable students, faculty, and staff to locate information easily.
8. Consider How Your Institution is Organized and Your Use of Resources and Facilities
How is your institution organized for improving student learning and success (e.g., through a specific organizational structure, committee(s), or other coordinated approach)? Do your facilities promote opportunities for enhancing student learning and success?
Institutions differ greatly from one another. Internal organizational features may include program structures, reporting functions, delivery models, staffing, budget, and facilities. Decisions can influence the way faculty, staff, and students view services, thereby affecting the campus culture. Collaboration and partnerships across divisions, units, and departments are critical to efforts to improve student engagement and involvement. The silo mentality is out of date and virtually extinct as an effective model for improving student engagement.
Resources also play a huge part in the ability of a campus to provide the support services necessary to engage and connect students. Many institutions work hard not only to provide resources to ensure that students have all the tools they need to successfully navigate the maze of higher education, but they also work strategically to reach out to specific students in need. For example, these types of programs will intentionally connect students to tutors rather than wait for students to seek them out. They will seek relationships with faculty and staff in order to improve the quality of the services offered. They may provide smaller study and discussion sessions for larger course sections. They provide extensive and proactive supplementary support services. They monitor student progress at critical time periods in a student’s undergraduate experience and create positive interventions as needs warrant.
Finally, it is important to note that the physical characteristics of your institution’s learning and living environment also are important to improving student learning and success. Consider how your institution’s learning and social environments invite interactions and enhance different types of learning. What impact do you think your facilities have on improving student learning and success? Reflect on the physical characteristics of your classroom buildings, student union, recreation centers, support services, and service offices. Are these areas inviting and conducive to student learning, engagement, and involvement? If your campus includes residential facilities, how do they–and their staff–foster student learning?
9. Consider How Your Institution Develops Faculty, Staff, and Student Leaders’ Understanding of Student Attitudes, Behaviors, and Aspirations
How transparent is your institution in terms of providing the campus community with data and information on students, student engagement survey results, student satisfaction results, and other important survey data? How do you use this information to understand students’ attitudes, aspirations, and behaviors? How is this information used by faculty, staff, and students who serve in leadership positions? How does your institution communicate student persistence data to the campus community, and how is this information used? Does your institution support attendance at national conferences related to SEM, first-year experience, student transition, academic advising, orientation, etc.? How is information gleaned from such experiences shared with colleagues?
Taking It Forward: Next Steps
As you move forward with SEM initiatives on your campus, use the questions and issues articulated in this white paper to consider how you may enhance efforts to improve student learning and success. The results of these efforts often are reflected in improved student engagement, involvement, and learning, which together lead to improved student persistence and graduation. Ultimately, overall institutional effectiveness is improved, creating an educated citizenry for the region, for the state, and for the nation.
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Other Supporting Resources
American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). 2006. Graduation rates and student success: Squaring means and ends. www.aascu.org
Berkner, L., S. He, M. Mason, and S. Wheeless. 2007. Persistence and attainment of 2003–04 beginning postsecondary students: After three years (NCES 2007-169). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC. Retrieved September 20, 2009, from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.
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This paper was authored by Amanda Yale, Ed.D., Associate Provost for Enrollment Services at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.