How to Tackle the College Retention Challenge

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This post is the second in a new content series that’s focused on improving learning through innovation. The series will explore the challenges and opportunities facing today’s educators and learners in K-12, higher education, and enterprise learning environments. Stay tuned for more blog posts, eBooks, community articles, and other resources as the series continues to develop.

Despite all the economic and social benefits that accompany a post-secondary degree, only 56% of students entering university successfully achieve their bachelor’s level degree within six years.[1] Only 29% of students who start a two year degree program finish within in three years.[2]

The reasons for this low student retention rate at the college level are many and varied.

A 2011 study by Harvard University entitled “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century”[3] identifies several reasons behind poor college student retention, including lack of preparedness for the rigors of academic work, financial challenges, and difficulty managing the competing demands of school, work, and family.

The national college completion agenda has been a primary focus of educational policy at the federal and state levels since being framed out as a goal by President Obama in 2009[4]. In fact, the total number of students achieving a bachelor’s degree in the US has risen over the last decade.[5] However, despite this apparent progress, US college graduation levels are still falling short of international standards. Today (2012 figures), the US ranks fifth in the world with 43% of 25-64 year olds having attained tertiary education, behind Canada, Israel, Japan and the Russian Federation.[6]

The economic implications of students dropping out of college are worrisome. According to the Harvard study, there is growing evidence of a skills gap in which many young adults today lack the skills and work ethic needed for jobs that pay a middle-class wage. On the other end of the spectrum, it is estimated that 65% of US jobs will require some form of post-secondary education by 2020.[7]

The impact of student attrition and low graduation rates on educational institutions is direct and financial.  A private college in the US will spend $2,433 in recruiting costs to attract a freshman to their school.[8]  If a student fails to finish their degree, that investment is lost—along with the associated tuition revenues.

The National College Completion Agenda

To respond to this challenge, the US has launched a number of initiatives in support of Obama’s national college completion agenda. These include:

  • An initiative by the College Board that seeks to increase the prevalence of college-educated adults from the current 39% to 55% by 2024
  • An established goal by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help the nation double the number of low-income students enrolling in college by age 26
  • 2025 goal set out by the Lumina Foundation to increase the number of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials from 39% to 60%[9]

School-Level Response

At the school level, there are also strategies in place to address the issue of student retention. They include recognition and support for the complex pathways today’s students may follow to graduation, more active faculty mentorship, and tapping into new funding sources to create and expand scholarship programs.

While educational technologies cannot impact all of the non-academic factors that play a role in college attrition rates (such as tuition costs), they can have a positive bearing and influence on a student’s preparedness for college workloads, their academic confidence, and their mastery of subject matter.

The deployment of innovative educational technology enables colleges to take an integrated approach to student retention and consider both academic and non-academic influences in their creation of an academic environment that will support the achievement of post-secondary success. This may incorporate monitoring, assessment, and alert systems to help assess a student’s mastery of the subject matter—as well as classroom/teacher engagement—and predictive metrics to flag at-risk students for early intervention. At the program or institutional level, a roll-up of metrics from broad technology usage can reveal patterns, allowing for more detailed analysis of drop out behaviors and patterns to inform improved decision making.

Significant effort needs to be made in order to improve our college attrition rates and close the gap between student entry into university and successful degree attainment. These efforts are already underway—including initiatives at the federal and state level to improve student success rates, the alignment of high school curriculum with college readiness standards, and the adoption of a broader use of technology at the college level. Together, they are driving an integrated approach to student retention and forming a blueprint for future student success that should be instrumental in improving college graduation rates and national economic competitiveness into the long-term future.

Additional Resources

 

 

[1] National Student Clearing House Research Centre “Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates

[2] National Student Clearing House Research Centre “Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates

[3] http://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/4740480/Pathways_to_Prosperity_Feb2011-1.pdf?sequence=1

[4] http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/higher-education

[5] http://www.oecd.org/edu/United%20States-EAG2014-Country-Note.pdf

[6] http://www.oecd.org/edu/United%20States-EAG2014-Country-Note.pdf

[7] Lumina Foundation “A Stronger Nation through Higher Education

[8] Noel Levitz “2013 Cost of Recruiting an Undergraduate Student Report”

[9] National Student Clearing House Research Centre IBID

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