Under Retention’s Radar: Deciphering “Inexplicable” College Drop-Outs

Despite decades of careful measurement and planned efforts to improve them, higher education retention rates are still sagging far below what they should be. According to an article in the Journal of College Student Development, “slightly over half of students who begin a bachelor’s degree program at a four-year college or university will complete their degree at that same institution within six years.” Not only are students not graduating in the expected four years, but a notable percentage never get their diplomas. 

This sad state of affairs means that, while colleges and universities are passionately, diligently working to improve student success, they’re missing something. Academic advisors, career counselors, and mentors are often surprised by the students who choose to leave – those who never showed the signs of struggling they’re told to look out for. This may seem like an impossible problem to solve or a great mystery, but the truth is, certain drop-outs only seem “inexplicable.” The metric of “retention” is fundamentally flawed, and it allows certain groups of at-risk students to fall under the radar, never receive the help their advisors would be so willing to offer if they only knew, and eventually drop out.

In the following blog, we’ll discuss the types of students retention procedures tend to mistakenly ignore and what your educational institution can do to help them carry on.

The Financially Burdened

Picture this: an undergraduate student is excelling in all his classes, leader of the debate team, and working an on-campus job in the bookstore. By all outward appearances and retention-based measures, this is a student that will definitely graduate. However, what advisors, mentors, and career counselors might not know about this student is that he is in crippling debt trying to pay for tuition, rent, food, textbooks, and other expenses. Ultimately, the strain, stress, and worry of his mounting financial woes could cause him to drop out and get a full-time job. Perhaps he intends to return “someday” but never does. Unfortunately, the monetary aspects of retention are often ignored, leaving advisors and institutions scratching their heads when apparently flourishing students disappear.

Even the institutions that understand how financial burdens affect retention rates haven’t found a good solution, though. According to a 2016 from the National Higher Education Benchmarking Institute, one of the strategies some colleges and universities employ to improve retention rates is “enroll only those financially solvent.” This, of course, only serves to even more categorically disregard the problem.

The Moderately “Successful”

In the retention mindset, GPA is an essential determining factor for retention rates. Students who get As and Bs are usually considered “safe,” while those with an abundance of Cs and Ds might be at risk of dropping out. However, this isn’t always the case. A 2016 article from Inside Higher Education describes what is probably a common situation occurring at the University of Arizona: “students who seemed poised to graduate were actually leaving at higher rates than we could have foreseen…students with solid grades in their lower-division foundational courses [were] leaving after their first, second or even third year.” The authors of the piece call this “an institutional blind spot.”

Basically, these researchers realized that many students “don’t exhibit the traditional warning signs as defined by the retention experts.” Reviewing these students’ records presented a much more nuanced trend – they hadn’t fully grasped the foundational material covered in their lower level courses, so they were underprepared and became overwhelmed as they advanced. Students like these – undetected as risks by retention measures since they are generally doing well – “[hit] a wall, usually during…major and upper-division courses, which is oftentimes difficult to overcome.”

This is how a student who earned mostly Bs and maybe a few Cs in lower division math courses might flounder when attempting upper-division engineering courses. The metrics of retention would suggest that students with average academic achievement in beginning courses should be set to graduate, but this becomes untrue if they lack the fundamentals they need to thrive in the more advanced courses of their majors.

The Vocationally Adrift

If a student doesn’t understand how her degree fits into the bigger picture of her career goals, she’ll be much less motivated to graduate, even if she’s doing well in her classes and seems to be engaged with campus life. As an Ed Source article notes, “research has shown that students feel more engaged in school when they are able to see the connection between their studies and real-world applications, such as how what they’re learning in the classroom will benefit them after graduation.” Intelligent, sociable, active students might not stay at their universities if they don’t see how their vocational goals relate to their coursework. After all, without a clear pathway to their professional aims, school could start to feel like a costly waste of time they could be using to gain work experience, apprentice under an expert in their chosen field, or learn the technical skills they need to succeed.

How to Help These Students

These are just a few types of pupils who end up underserved by retention-focused approaches to student success. In order to enhance student success and address these forgotten demographics, you need to adjust your viewpoint on academic achievement. Rather than focusing on the institutional statistic of retention, programs should be designed with a proactive approach to helping individual students persist. By taking each student’s unique circumstances into account, you can better serve them all.

The Value of VitaNavis

Our analytics decision-making solution could become a crucial tool in helping all students succeed at your school. Students can use the platform to learn more about their learning style, career or vocational interests, possible pathways, and much more while increasing their engagement leading them to persist. To learn more, download our white paper, The Persistence Perspective on Retention.  

Under Retention’s Radar: Deciphering “Inexplicable” College Drop-Outs

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