Partners in student access, retention, throughput and success

Enrolment management – access, recruitment, admissions, retention, throughput and graduation – is a fact of life in higher education institutions around the world. In particular, since student attrition results in a major loss of human potential and capital, student retention is an issue almost everywhere.

The first step in managing enrolment is how an institution designs its policies around access. Does it have open admissions? What criteria are used to rank candidates? Does the institutional mission include giving access to groups of students who may be underprepared or come from racial or economic groups that traditionally are not eligible for admission?

Regarding student attrition and retention, in 2007 RAND Europe released a report comparing student retention in several countries. Survival or retention rates (2004 cohort) for these nations were as follows: Australia (67%), Ireland (83%), the Netherlands (76%), United Kingdom (78%) and the United States (64%).

Another study found that less than 55% of American students complete a bachelor degree in six years. In Ireland, third level (technical) students drop out of some courses at a rate of over 70%. In Morocco, 58% of students drop out before graduation. Australian attrition rates hover around 15%. These are just a few examples of how nations are grappling with retaining students through to graduation.

Also important in this quest for student retention is the approach nations and institutions take to grant access to all qualified students, enhancing inclusion for the benefit of all – for society and the individual. Several studies point to the imperative for nations to view education as a public good (society), not just a private good (individual). This requires a humanistic approach anchored by respect for life, human dignity, cultural diversity and social justice.

“Student affairs and services: Partners in student access, retention, throughput and success, appears as Section VIII in Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education: Global foundations, issues, and best practices, Third Edition (pp 105-143). Authors from around the world look at student retention from varying points of view, some of which are reflected here. This article focuses on the importance to student retention of initiatives bolstering student resilience and grit, in-service learning programmes and academic advisory services.

Resilience and grit

Paul P Marthers talks about the importance of resilience and grit as students work their way through the higher education experience, in an article titled “Fortifying student resilience and grit: Examples from universities across the globe (pp 134-135).

Managing the student life cycle requires cross-divisional initiatives and the willingness to innovate. Applying a student success lens to the student life cycle has led universities to examine the relative roles played by traditional measures of academic achievement (grades, credits completed, major requirements met) and less traditional, non-cognitive indicators such as student grit and resilience.

This shifting approach is leading to university initiatives designed to foster attitudes and behaviours that will promote student success as measured by higher retention, graduation, and student satisfaction rates.

For example, consider the programming offered by the Office of Undergraduate Retention at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the United States. Recognising that students live their daily lives on mobile devices, the website is stocked with topics such as developing a growth mindset, thinking positively amid change, and becoming resilient.

Similarly, the Student Success Advocates’ programme at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City provides video resources for students with titles that include: Growth Mindset; Change Your Mindset, Change the Game; and Ability, Effort, or Mindset?

A recent study at Rice University in Houston found clear evidence that students at four-year universities get better grades and are more likely to graduate if they exhibit three key traits: 1. A growth mindset (belief that their intelligence can improve over time); 2. A sense of belonging and social integration into campus life (flagged as especially important for under-represented students); and 3. An intrinsic motivation to achieve.

The Rice University research team found that 83% of the retention and completion studies examined showed strong evidence that the three non-cognitive factors listed above led to higher rates of student success.

Further, the study found that retention and graduation rates can be positively impacted by low-cost and relatively simple interventions that develop and strengthen resilience-correlated characteristics such as internal motivation.

Such findings underscore the fact that universities need to think not just about how to recruit resilient students but also how to build the resilience of the students they have enrolled, both to help those students persist through to graduation and to enable them to be better prepared for life, career and citizenship.

Building resilience

At institutions around the world, we are seeing the emergence of both student-initiated activities – that is, programmes in which students highlight for each other the need to persevere amid adversity – and cross-campus initiatives designed to educate students about ways to build their resilience and grit.

At Tulane University in New Orleans, the Undergraduate Student Government operates a Resilience Cooperative whose goal is to help students develop the skills needed to persevere. Central to the student-run cooperative is a belief in the power of a ‘growth mindset’ and qualities (such as persistence) associated with Angela Lee Duckworth’s concept of ‘grit’.

Similarly, the Office of Retention and Student Success at Tulane University encourages students to share personal stories of resilience. A Story of Failure project provides students with topic prompts such as: culture shock, imposter syndrome, responses to criticism, and career path uncertainty. By highlighting resilience stories, the office hopes to normalise failure so that students come to understand that they can be successful even when encountering unexpected obstacles that appear insurmountable.

One approach to developing resilience is to ask students what has worked for them.

This was undertaken by officials at the Australian National University in Canberra, or ANU. Students emphasised the need to build social connections and get support from others; practice positive cognitive strategies, such as balanced and flexible thinking; and regularly engage in self-care regimens such as physical exercise, breaks to recharge, and getting enough sleep. The student life division at ANU used this student feedback to guide future student success and mental health programming efforts.

To more effectively deliver on student expectations, academic units, enrolment offices and the campus life division at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, are working as partners on the Emory Undergraduate Experience Initiative.

Two recently launched efforts include: a cross-campus working group charged with improving the new student onboarding experience, and a one-credit, one-semester PACE 101 course for first-year students. Beyond familiarising students with Emory’s curricular requirements and academic policies, the PACE 101 curriculum addresses how to build resilience, for example by encouraging students to explore new areas and risk failure.

A number of universities, such as Dalhousie in Halifax in Nova Scotia, offer workshops on resilience. One innovative feature of the workshop at Dalhousie is the G.R.I.T. assessment that provides participants with a closer look at their level of resilience.

The University of Victoria on Vancouver Island in British Columbia provides counsel through its Student Health 101 magazine. Recent issues have highlighted resilience and grit, helping students better understand why resilience matters, the positive side effects of resilience and the seven ways to build it.

Like the University of Victoria an Dalhousie University, Ryerson University in Toronto provides four-session, resilience-related instruction and workshops to help students “manage challenges and cultivate well-being”. But Ryerson takes its focus on resilience a step further by instructing academics on resilience-building ways to give feedback to students.

What directions might there be for future research or future initiatives?

At universities in the US, roughly 40% of new student orientation programmes require a common reading assignment that gets discussed. According to the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, institutions that require a common reading assignment range from public flagship universities like Vermont and Wisconsin at Madison, to Canada’s University of Calgary, McMaster University in Ottawa, and Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.

Why not use these required readings in an intentional way to signal to incoming students the significance of resilience and grit?

Overall, there is much room for further study of resilience-focused initiatives designed to improve student success. As new programmes are launched, it will be interesting to see if universities take their own resilience-related advice and risk that some initiatives will fail, or will simply stick to the time-worn belief that only fully-vetted and seemingly fail-safe projects are worth attempting.

We most definitely know which approach aligns more with the principles of resilience.

In-service learning

In “Improving student retention, throughput and graduation rates through academic engagement in service-learning” (pp 115-119), Patrick Blessinger discusses how service-learning has been a successful approach used to enhance student retention and graduation.

Service-learning is an academically rigorous and structured educational approach that promotes active learning by integrating classroom learning with experiential learning through community service and civic engagement.

More specifically, service-learning is a course-based, credit bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organised service activity that meets identified community needs, and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of personal values and civic responsibility.

Service learning achieves these goals because it is a curricula-based approach to teaching and learning that requires students to apply knowledge they are learning in the classroom to real-world experiences through community-based projects.

The service-learning office within an institution typically serves as the central point of contact for instructors, students and community partners.

This office coordinates major service-learning functions such as establishing and maintaining relationships and agreements with community partners, training instructors and partners in service-learning basics, defining the roles and responsibilities for all parties, and providing all parties with the basic resources they need to enable successful service-learning projects.

Instructors integrate applicable service-learning projects into their course(s) and define the learning objectives that students need to meet by engaging in such a project.

Some of the main goals of service learning are to improve student engagement, retention, throughput and graduation. Service-learning helps to achieve these goals by providing an active learning experience for students.

The key distinguishing characteristic of service-learning is that it is curricular-based and directly connected to course learning objectives and, concomitantly, directly helps to achieve the broader institutional learning goals of improved retention, throughput and graduation rates. Hence, one of the main benefits of service-learning projects, unlike one-time or one-off field experiences, is that they are an extension of the classroom and can even be extended across courses within an academic programme.

The essential function of any service-learning experience is that the experience is structured and the course learning objectives and community service objectives are integrated through community-based experimental learning such that the recipient (the student) and the provider (the community partner) benefit equitably from the exchange. The principle of equitable reciprocity requires that the recipient both serves and learns from the experience.

The main purpose and function of service-learning is to complement classroom learning through community service projects that meet participant needs and increase student academic achievement.

By engaging students academically and socially in personally meaningful and academically rigorous learning activities, service-learning provides a concrete, real-world mechanism for students to improve critical thinking and communication skills, develop career and teamwork skills, gain a greater sense of civic responsibility, and enhance academic success – and it improves student retention and persistence.

Designed and managed properly, service-learning programmes can increase student retention, throughput and graduation rates by providing students with a practical, academically engaging way to meet course learning objectives. Service-learning also enables instructors to integrate community service activities into courses in order to more effectively engage students academically and socially to improve student success.

Academic advice

Selma Haghamed, in “Academic advising and retention” (pp 127-130), presents the case for having a top quality academic advisory programme to enhance student retention, which can play a significant role in fostering student learning and development. Academic advisors among other things teach students the process of course selection and acquaint them with graduation requirements.

Students drop out because they find that perhaps university is not what they expected; their perceptions about success in higher education are shaped by expectations. Having a chance to speak to an official helps students adjust their expectations to the realities of the campus.

Carefully planned academic advising helps students form realistic expectations by matching students’ perceptions with the reality of success in higher education institutions. The main responsibilities of academic advisors are helping students navigate a path of success through complex rules, regulations and the requirements of completing a degree.

Giving constructive and timely feedback is one of the characteristics of institutions that are identified as having the most effective educational practices. Feedback is a major factor in student retention.

Academic advising could provide opportunities for feedback and assessment. Referring students to appropriate support services such as counselling, academic support and financial aid in a timely fashion is one of the important factors of retention – and academic advisors are at the centre of the referral process.

Early alert systems are emerging as one of the major tools available to institutionalise a culture of retention in universities and colleges, and to alert faculty and support staff when a student is at high risk.

The systems use technology and software solutions to build a sense of community in the large and fragmented campuses of today. Academic advisors play a vital role in mobilising and managing the use of alert systems.

Attrition is a chronic problem in institutions and a real challenge for students, especially those in first year. In many institutions around the world, academic advisors teach first-year programmes and, therefore, act as both instructors and mentors for students.

Academic advisors facilitate the use of learning support because of the referral capacity of academic advising programmes. Well-established programmes train advisors on how, when and where to refer students to campus resources.

Today’s students are diverse in terms of academic readiness, race, religion, gender, national origin, employment status and socio-economic background. Planning academic advising services – and indeed, creating resilience initiatives and in-service learning – must pay serious attention to this diversity and to the needs of non-traditional students.

Roger B Ludeman is Editor-in-Chief of the IASAS-DSW book and President Emeritus of IASAS:
Paul P Marthers is Vice Provost, Enrollment Management, at Emory University in the United States:
Patrick Blessinger is Director and Chief Research Scientist at the International HETL Association:
Selma Haghamed is Marsa Abroad Managing Director in Doha, Qatar: