Who cares about retention?

Kyle Paul, Research & Planning Analyst

There is nothing we can do because the student wasn’t going to stay in the program anyway… I’ve never seen such levels of disengagement… The workload is too much that I just can’t handle it anymore. These are all statements that can be heard when conversations about student retention occur. Based on these responses, there appears to be no preventative approach, or at least no easy one. So, if these claims ring true, the question now becomes whether the term retention is merely a buzzword? Yes, no, depends? The quick response should be no; however, this is not always the case. This post intends to address why we should not shy away addressing student retention conversations, and instead expand the lines of communication.

Some people claim that student retention is difficult to talk about (and measure) because there are so many definitions available. So, as a starting point we address the question that asks what definition should I use? Sadly, there is no common definition to use because of the various stakeholders involved. For example, a president might only be concerned if students are leaving their institution and not re-enrolling soon after, whereas a dean’s definition might be restricted to the faculty (or school) they oversee, and similarly to the program they teach in for a faculty member. While there is no common terminology, the core question stands that if a student is leaving, should we not know where they are going, and why? Yes… don’t you agree? Before we discuss what components define retention, there are a few additional questions to ask.

For example, why does retention even matter? What difference does it make if a student stays or goes, there is another student waiting for that spot anyway. While this may be true, retention, to an extent, is a reflection on us as educators and our ability to provide for our students. Arguably there is an endless list of reasons why a student might drop out that are out of our control, which include a lack of finances, family or personal issues, among others, but the reasons such as the courses were too tough (poor performance) and it just wasn’t the right fit for me (this could be the program and/or college) are two specific reasons why it should matter to us. If we truly love what we do, we should be able to identify the warning signs of ‘at-risk’ students and offer any/all the support we can. I mean, if this was us, a family member, a close friend, would it matter then? Yes.

Provided the student welcomes our assistance you might ask what can I do to help? This is where the options are endless, you can do everything, something, the only thing you shouldn’t do is nothing. We, as a college community, have a wide array of support networks available for students that range from tutoring, career services, and campus support. Educating ourselves with what’s available under our own roof strengthens the college community, and impacts the quality education received by the student. By improving the quality of education, we minimize the loss of students returning to campus for another year, which if left unattended would result in greater financial loss and a lower graduation rate for the institution, and might also affect the way that stakeholders, legislators, parents, and students view the institution.

So, I now re-ask the original question of why should we care about retention? Personally, it is morally the right thing to do to help educate future generation(s); professionally, it is our duty to better the academic environment; and financially, it contributes to the success of our employer and solidifies our own career path. You may have your own interpretation of why retention matters (or doesn’t), so check back soon to see if we agree. Part two of this post explores the operational definitions of retention, the different ways we can calculate retention/attrition and the ways retention data can work for you.