To Retain College Students, Look to Academic Support and Campus Activities, New Report Finds

Sep 12, 2019

What keeps college students coming back for more? A new report on the effects college programs have on student retention attempts to answer that question.

Academic advising meetings, Greek life, supplemental instruction, scholarships and tutoring are the programs that correlate most with improved student retention rates, according to a study of nearly 1,000 initiatives at more than 55 colleges and universities conducted by Civitas Learning, which sells software that uses predictive modeling to help colleges to track and support student success.

“In the first few years, non-academic supports tend to be really important and have more impact. After the fourth or fifth term, academic supports tend to kick in,” says Mark Milliron, chief learning officer and co-founder of Civitas Learning.

To encourage students to take advantage of extracurricular activities that may improve their chances of staying enrolled and complement their classroom learning, the University of Central Oklahoma devised a system that awards digital badges for participation in events and clubs and also compiles evidence for interested future employers.

Measuring Retention

Sometimes called student success or persistence, retention rates of students who return from term to term or year to year is tricky for college leaders to predict and influence. Many institutions have room for improvement.

From fall 2016 to fall 2017, retention rates for first-time, full-time undergraduate students seeking degrees at four-year colleges was 81 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At the most selective schools, retention was 96 percent. At public institutions with open admissions policies, it was 62 percent; at private nonprofit institutions with open admissions policies, it was 66 percent. At private for-profits, it was 54 percent.

Students who don’t return to the campus where they started as freshmen haven’t necessarily dropped out, however; nearly one in eight students who start college in any fall term transfer to a different institution by the next fall, according to a 2018 report from NSC Research Center.

For its new report, Civitas dug into the data it helps colleges collect on students’ daily activities to figure out which programs most correlate with better retention from year to year. To do this, it compared students who participated in particular programs with a control group of non-participating students whose characteristics matched closely.

Overall, the programs associated with the highest percentage point increase in student retention over the control group were:

  • Advisor meetings: 5.80 percentage point increase
  • Greek life: 3.79 percentage point increase
  • Supplemental instruction: 3.43 percentage point increase
  • Scholarships: 3.24 percentage point increase
  • Tutoring: 3.02 percentage point increase

This means, for example, that students who participated in advisor meetings returned to campus the following term at a rate of 5.8 percentage points higher than would be expected had they not gone to those meetings.

Supplemental instruction is a method of peer-led group study developed in the 1970s at the University of Missouri at Kansas City that is now used at institutions throughout the world, says Julie Collins, executive director of The International Center for Supplemental Instruction at UMKC. Students who have been successful in particularly challenging courses, like organic chemistry or college algebra, are trained to guide other students through study sessions related to those courses.

Using the Civitas methodology, UMKC determined that students who participated in at least three supplemental instruction sessions on its campus were retained at a higher rate than students who didn’t, resulting in the retention of about 78 more students.

Early warning systems designed to tell students they’re headed toward academic trouble actually correlate with drops in retention, Milliron says, noting that the way these interventions are worded may matter a lot.

Program effects vary by student characteristics. When broken down by race, only white students saw retention boosts associated with Greek life, while black and Hispanic students saw lifts associated with first-year seminars. Effects also vary by campus, Milliron cautions, which means some programs that showed a neutral correlation to retention for the overall set of students studied may be beneficial for some individuals.

“We have to be careful about one-size-fits-all,” he says. “What’s the right thing for the right student at the right time deployed in the right way? What’s the right recipe for which set of students?”

Still, Milliron hopes that the report findings will encourage college leaders to question their assumptions about what’s working on their own campuses and more thoroughly test strategies. Some of those may be behavioral science interventions, although “nudging” efforts have lately seen mixed results.

Another tactic may simply be sharing results with students.

“I’m a big believer in telling students the truth,” Milliron says. “They’ll navigate a lot of things if you can tell them, ‘students who go to at least three events are more likely to succeed.’”

Social Ties that Bind

Convincing students that it’s important to take advantage of academic support services seems intuitive. Selling them on extracurricular events may be more difficult. And yet students who participate in clubs and activities, like fraternities and sororities, forge deeper ties to their institutions, Milliron says.

“We are assuming colleges are a collection of classes. Colleges at their best are a family of experiences that include classes,” he says. “Getting students to go to a club, those social connections are a big deal.”

Students who live on campus may have an easier time accessing meetings and events than their peers who commute, who often “don’t have time or don’t seek out these activities because they think they need to get home as quickly as possible,” says Jeff King, executive director of the Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching and Learning at the University of Central Oklahoma.

That’s one reason why Central Oklahoma put in place a co-curricular transcript program called Student Transformative Learning Record, or STLR. It’s designed to encourage students at the mostly commuter school to participate in activities that teach cultural competency, health, creativity and scholarship, leadership and civic engagement by awarding them badges in each area.

To earn a basic “exposure” badge, a student signs in with a student ID to a campus event or club meeting, such as the fall musical or the Pasaporte al Mundo Latino Wednesday Lecture Series. Earning a higher-level badge requires students to create what King calls “a reflective artifact,” such as an essay or journal, which a faculty or staff member grades according to a rubric. When it’s time to think about finding a job, the STLR transcript can be used to show employers what students have accomplished outside of the classroom.

Central Oklahoma students who use STLR have 12 to 15 percent better retention rates than those that don’t, King says. School leaders especially hoped the tool would help shrink the retention gap between its first-generation, low-income and minority students and its general population, and “it just about has,” he’s found. “It’s a huge difference from where we were when we started.” Even students who only earn “exposure” level badges for swiping into extracurricular events have higher retention rates than their peers.

These STLR results have inspired copycat programs throughout the U.S. and even internationally, with colleges in Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Singapore creating their own co-curricular transcript systems, King says. To teach interested college leaders, Central Oklahoma runs a STLR Institute during its annual Transformative Learning conference.

Most importantly to Central Oklahoma, the program has caught on with its own students. Those who earn the highest level badge in one of the five categories can earn a colored cord to wear at graduation, and in spring 2018, the school had its first “rainbow grad”: a student who earned top honors in all the STLR areas.


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