How Retention Hurts Students

One of the most common ways colleges and universities measure student success is retention. This number refers to the proportion of students who return from one year to the next, typically between their freshman and sophomore years. Believing that keeping students around is an accurate indicator of success, many administrators, educators, and counselors design entire programs around boosting their retention rates. They mean for these initiatives to help students do better and graduate with the skills they need to succeed. However, unfortunately, retention measurement and its resulting strategies often hurt students more than they aid them. Read on to learn how and why.

The Best Retention Intentions

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that retention rates really do have students’ best interests at heart. The goal of these metrics is typically quite noble. As noted educational scholar, Vincent Tinto puts it, measuring retention is usually an “institutional commitment to students…that springs from the very character of an institution’s educational mission.” The basic underlying concept of retention does make sense – it assumes that failing students leave while flourishing students stay. After all, if a student is struggling, he wouldn’t re-enroll, and if a student is thriving, she wouldn’t drop out, right?

Why is Retention a Flawed Metric?

Retention is harmful because the world of higher education is much more complex than this metric accounts for. While it may still be the case that successful students re-enroll and unsuccessful students don’t, there are typically myriad factors involved in these situations. Beyond academic performance, students’ re-enrollment often depends on external circumstances, such as their

  • family lives
  • finances
  • a sense of belonging in their school communities
  • personal understanding of their performance (also called “self-efficacy”)
  • confidence that their coursework relates to their aspirations

and many other factors. For instance, a mother with a 3.8 GPA who works part-time might drop out because she can’t take on any more student loans and is concerned she’s spending too little time with her children. As another potential case study, a student excelling in his philosophy major might ultimately drop out because he doesn’t believe his degree will help him obtain his dream job as a radio host.

How Does Retention Harm Students?

Retention cannot and does not take the varied elements of student success into consideration, to the detriment of students. Furthermore, when retention-based programs do acknowledge the complexity of the situation, they often do so in punitive, discriminatory ways. As discussed in a National Higher Education Benchmarking Institute presentation on Georgia community colleges, retention-based approaches cause schools to “enroll only the best and brightest, enroll only those financially solvent, enroll only full-time students, use predictive analytics to weed out the inadequate, likely to fail students as soon as possible (before census), require students to live on-campus for the full college experience, and use grade inflation to make sure they all pass.” This, of course, excludes many of the exact students who most need assistance in earning their degrees.

Which Students Are Most Affected?

Based on the key issues retention ignores (or, worse yet, penalizes), the pupils most impacted by these types of practices include those with:

  • financial instabilities
  • more complex family lives
  • lower academic performance
  • less clearly defined coursework to career paths
  • off-campus housing arrangements
  • part-time schedules

These are a few of the most common categories of students affected, but of course, retention’s failings truly affect all students, since each is an individual with nuanced, personal factors that affect his or her success.

The Solution

So, if retention has the best intentions but harms students in practice, what should educational institutions do to measure and motivate student success? At The Myers-Briggs Company, we’ve found that the answer lies in focusing on increasing persistence. This more proactive approach to retention focuses on individual students’ needs and aids them in designing their academic route in alignment with their professional aims. Our VitaNavis® analytics platform helps students identify their interests and personalities through a self-awareness lens, understand their skills and competencies and research viable career and vocational paths to make more informed decisions.

Truly Support Student Success with Persistence

To learn more about replacing retention practices with more personalized, student-oriented persistence measures, download our white paper The Persistence Perspective on Retention.

How Retention Hurts Students

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