Why do so many of America’s college students fail to graduate? Why are some institutions able to retain students while others can’t?
Retention is a long-debated subject in higher education — one that has an impact beyond the ivory tower. We hear a lot in the mainstream media about enrollment and the cost of education, but little about how to keep students returning to the classroom.
Our national retention numbers are startling.
Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show about 40% of freshmen are likely to leave a college or university within the first year. Some will transfer to another institution, but as many as 30% will drop out. Altogether, less than two-thirds of the 70% of Americans who attend a four-year college or university will graduate.
Millions of dollars are wasted each year on classes that will never lead to a diploma, while thousands of frustrated drop-outs search for a place in a workforce that increasingly demands at least a bachelor’s degree.
You might think students are likely to leave because the curricula proved too tough, but a quick glance at the schools with the highest retention rates reveals otherwise. Columbia University and the University of Chicago keep 99% of their freshmen, and both are known for strenuous academics, suggesting schools hoping to retain more freshmen have no need to dumb down their offerings. In fact, the opposite might be the case. Why not increase the challenges?
Vincent Tinto, a student retention theorist, claims only 20-30% of students leave school because of academics. The other 70-80% depart for these reasons:
- Adjustment— Students who are ill-prepared for the changes that come with transitioning from high school to college or leaving home become overwhelmed and drop out
- Goals — Students who are unclear about why they’re in school and about their educational purpose are likely to leave
- Commitment — If students experience the school differently after making a commitment than in the recruitment phase, they might not to return
- Finances — Some withdraw because they can no longer bear the financial burden
- Integration and community membership — Struggling to fit in with the college’s culture might prompt departure. Integration is a known problem for first-generation and minority students
- Incongruence — If the needs of the student and the needs and mission of the institution do not align, the student may go
- Isolation — When connections with other students, faculty or administrators are lacking, students are likely to drop out
I’ve taught college freshmen for more than a decade, instructing newcomers in general education writing courses at two large public universities, two small private colleges and one online college. I’ve seen first-year students struggling with everything on Tinto’s list, but, above all, have encountered students having trouble with adjustment, commitment and integration.
Many freshmen arrive on campus expecting college to work just like high school. They’re unaccustomed to studying independently after years of completing “homework” assignments in class or study halls. They’re also unsure how to handle the freedom college brings. Failing to show up for class, for instance, no longer means a trip to the principal’s office, but it will have a detrimental impact on their learning experience — not just on grades but on the ability to develop a sense of educational purpose. Many students don’t realize this until it’s too late.
Some students complain that college is now a “requirement.” They don’t view class as a choice or privilege, but as an obligation, one their parents are forcing them to endure. Without a personal investment in educational goals, students drift. The subjects they’re asked to study seem disconnected from their everyday lives.
Faculty have opportunities to help students who appear to be going astray. I’m always glad to have “non-traditional” — older, part-time — or first-generation students in my classes because they inevitably contribute a new perspective to the conversation. It often depends on the teacher, however, to notice these students and invite them into the discussion.
I also help students work out a study plan if they find themselves overwhelmed. If a student stops turning up for class, however, there is little a teacher can do.
The positive numbers from places like U Chicago and Columbia suggest retention shouldn’t just become a concern after students arrive on campus. For highly successful schools, retention starts in the recruitment phase. I attended U Chicago and have helped several students apply there, working as an independent college counselor. The application is arduous — requiring more essays than most — and highly targeted. Enrolled students help craft the essay questions, so they’re unlike any other school’s and reveal much about U Chicago’s personality.
One 500-word essay prompt a few years ago said nothing more than this: “Define x.”
A prompt like that turns off a lot of potential students. Those who find it fun and challenging are more likely to be a good fit for U Chicago — no matter how they end up answering the question. As a result, the university ends up choosing its undergraduates from a self-selected pool. Students who self-select are much more likely to have a clearer sense of their educational goals.
Other colleges might do well to consider ways to include the school’s personality in the application process. Such actions might reduce applicant pool size, but it also might lead to a freshman class more likely to make the most of the gifts that college offers.