It is one thing to catalogue college retention efforts or suggest new ways to increase the number of students — especially the number of low-income, minority and first-generation students — who return to college each year and, ultimately, earn an associate or bachelor’s degree. It is another thing entirely to rigorously measure the outcomes of retention initiatives that have been implemented in a variety of campus environments, evaluate their effectiveness, and identify and scale those best practices that can truly move the needle on student persistence and degree completion.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 58 percent of students who enrolled in public, four-year colleges nationwide in the 2007 freshman class had completed a bachelor’s degree by 2013. That means two in every five students who start a bachelor’s program at public institutions are failing to earn a degree at those schools within six years. The corresponding completion rates for minorities are much lower: 40 percent for African-Americans, 51 percent for Latinos. These rates have improved only modestly in recent years. Another dataset from the NCES indicates that only about two-fifths of first-generation college students can expect to complete a postsecondary degree. Based on a review of Census Bureau data, a Pell Institute study estimates that only 22 percent of dependent students from the lowest income quartile are earning a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24.
As the first person in my family to go to college, I recall that I had no clue about how to navigate my first year. While I made it through thanks to the help of strong academic support professionals, there were many whom I met in freshman orientation who were no longer enrolled when I returned for my sophomore year. The first year of college is trying for many students, as new responsibilities and expectations can be overwhelming. For this reason, a large percentage of students do not make it to the second year. Nationwide, 20 percent of students who enrolled full time in bachelor’s programs at public colleges and universities in the fall of 2012 did not return the next year. As for students who were studying on a part-time basis, 50 percent of those enrolled at four-year public colleges and universities in fall of 2012 did not return the following year. This is particularly appalling given more nontraditional students today are enrolling in college as part-time students so that they may work and manage other life responsibilities.
Finding effective, portable ways to move the needle for first year students is the objective of a three-year initiative being led by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents 420 of the nation’s public institutions. USA Funds recently announced its support of the Re-Imagining the First Year of College (RFY) project at AASCU. This project is being specifically designed to identify and test a series of programs, strategies and tools aimed at increasing retention rates for first-year students, and, at the same time, help students develop a measurable set of 21st century skills needed to succeed in the workplace.
Through a competitive process, 40 institutions will be selected to participate in the project, which will start in 2016. By forming a learning community, the participants will review, adopt and share practices and implementation strategies. Each of the 40 participating schools will be expected to design, approve, and implement a comprehensive set of first-year strategies designed for the particular circumstances of their individual campuses.
This project seeks to re-imagine the first year of college for all undergraduate students but with an eye toward improving persistence rates for at-risk, historically underserved students, including low-income, minority and first-generation students. The redesign efforts will seek to employ evidence-based and innovative practices to improve outcomes for first-year students and will be concentrated in four areas that cover key student experiences and needs.
- Institutional: student advising, financial support, administrative services.
- Curriculum design: developmental education, new assessment models, competency-based learning models, course redesign.
- Student development: peer mentoring, student leadership programs.
- Faculty and staff development: supplemental instruction programs, establishment of faculty centers that promote innovative teaching.
Of course, student success is measured not only by degree attainment rates but also by post-college outcomes — in particular, career and income prospects. However, students cannot graduate or improve their employment situation if they drop out of college during their first year. Thus, the RFY project will monitor freshman persistence into the sophomore year. The project also will track progress toward degree completion — that is, the number of credit hours earned. This is a critical data point because students who fall behind in credit accumulation are at increased risk of stopping out. In addition, the participants and AASCU will capture nonacademic indicators of success, including student satisfaction, commitment to degree completion, and engagement in both their studies and extracurricular activities.
The overarching goal is to create a robust repository of best practices — not just a short list of what colleges can do to boost retention, but a readily accessible, annotated compendium of evidenced-based solutions. Retention is a costly problem, both for students and postsecondary institutions. By developing and sharing detailed strategies, the RFY project can speed the adoption of innovative programs by helping other schools quickly identify and successfully implement retention programs that will meet the needs of their campuses and their students.