The single biggest factor affecting retention

August 12, 2019
  • Enrollment Management
  • Retention
  • SEM Conference
  • leveraging tech & data

With limited resources and competing demands, enrollment managers are always trying to get the biggest bang for their buck. 

And although institutions have invested in programs and staffing aimed at increasing student persistence, retention rates have remained steady over time. 

So, what does the data tell us about how to help students succeed?

“It’s surprising,” said Amanda Dolan, Director, Enrollment Management & Student Services, Kent State Ashtabula Campus. “Looking at different types of students, such as women, minority students, first-generation students, or at external factors such as financial need or family support -- these were just not found to be significant factors affecting student persistence.” 

Specific cases may vary upon closer inspection, she noted, but at the global, metadata level, “students are students,” Dolan said. Although serving specific populations’ needs is important, Dolan said, “by far” the most impactful retention strategy is academic integration.

Dolan’s conclusions come from a rigorous statistical analysis undertaken for her dissertation. Using a meta-analytic structural equation modeling developed by Cheung (2015), Dolan synthesized many undergraduate student persistence models into a single model to see what held true in terms of persistence -- the first meta-analysis of its kind. 

“We were successful in confirming many aspects of major theoretical models that have withstood the test of time,” she said. “Academic integration, social integration, institutional commitment and organizational factors of the college all contribute to student persistence over time. Surprisingly, student background characteristics and other external factors did not show up in the research as being significant contributors to persistence in the body of work I researched.” 

What is academic integration?

“All students, regardless of specific populations’ needs, require the same thing from their institutions,” Dolan said. “Faculty who care about students, who are effective teachers, available for students and good at managing their classrooms. Peer support and organizational factors such as: How difficult is it to access financial aid or register for classes? Are policies fair and do students have a voice in them? Are communications based on how students want to be communicated with?”

“Ultimately, it relates back to the culture of the institution,” Dolan said. “Faculty issues can be harder aspects to influence because it’s about how they are interacting with students which is more difficult to measure than traditional means of evaluating faculty.” 

Building a culture of retention

Based on her research, Dolan suggested building a culture that supports student success might require retraining faculty to make expectations clear that they need to be involved with students in and out of the classroom through mentoring, tutoring, clubs, and activities. Additionally, she advised reviewing policies and procedures to see how easy or prohibitive they are throughout a student’s career. 

“Overall, I think we can spend less time worrying about different types of students and more time focused on the culture of the campus we’re part of,” she said. “How are we treating all students? What is the quality of their classroom and social experiences? What policy changes can we affect that will impact student success without costing a lot of money?”

Dolan will bring her research and insights to her session “What do 40 years of data tell us about student persistence?” at the 2019 AACRAO SEM Conference, Nov, 3-6, 2019, in Dallas, TX. Peruse all of the research, data, and analytics sessions available at the conference, and register now.