Why is it that very smart and highly motivated leaders are so frustrated when they try to tackle the problem of increasing retention and graduation rates? 

Here are three ways leaders may be unknowingly sabotaging retention efforts with examples from client situations at three campuses we have worked with.  The universities in question all have generally good reputations. Their graduates say they received an excellent education and enjoyed their experience there.  Unfortunately, in each case, only about 40% of students who enter as freshmen actually attain their degrees within six years.  The presidents, the provosts and the college deans could not put their finger on why so many students left.

The answer, of course, is that there is not a single reason but a number of reasons that students decide not to continue.  The real question in each case was “What is the university doing or not doing that is contributing to the problem?”  For each of these clients, we went to the campus and spent time meeting with groups of students, faculty, staff and administrators. We asked them what was working and not working at the school that might affect retention. We analyzed the existing data that was available and then shared our findings with the leaders.  Here are quotes taken from our assessment reports and the lessons to be learned.  Is your institution is doing any of these things to make sure retention efforts fail?

Campus #1: Lack of a Strategic Focus on Retention and Graduation

The Quote: “There is limited focus on addressing retention as a campus wide issue.  Everyone is aware of it, we are told, but it has not been reflected in the work of the campus. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent strategic approach being implemented or tactical follow-through that is connected to retention or graduation.   This is a key finding that cuts across all of the interviews we conducted.  Because there are no specific role expectations related to retention and graduation, individuals are not held accountable and responsible for specific outcomes related to their position and/or their direct reports.  Even more important, strategic goals have not been translated into clear milestones, qualitative and/or quantative indicators of productivity, or other operational check points to track if what is being done is producing—or will lead to—desired end results.”

“There is widespread stated support for retention goals and objectives and their implied benefits to the University, however the University has not been organized to achieve them or for any other of the University’s strategic priorities.  This is not to say that nothing is taking place, but what is being done is being done in the framework of several operating areas rather than in a focused and comprehensive strategic/tactical framework.”

The lesson: What gets measured gets done.  If retention is everybody’s business it’s nobody’s business.

Campus #2: Lack of Campus Engagement

The Quote: “Campus engagement on the issue of retention is low.  In our interviews we heard that there is a lack of general awareness on campus of the retention-to-graduation problem.  There is no campus-wide strategy for engaging the different constituencies (students, faculty, staff, administration).  While the most senior leaders believe that the sense of urgency has been raised, it is not manifested in faculty attitudes or in any kind of collaboration across organizational boundaries.  Nothing is to be found in the faculty manual, the website, the orientation program or staff training that stresses the need to keep more students on the pathway to graduation.  To the contrary, the only message being received by members of the campus community is that there isn’t a problem because no one is talking about it.”

The lesson: Leaders need to create a sense of urgency and make the case why everyone should care about improving retention and graduation numbers.

Campus #3: Disconnected Student Support Services

The Quote: “The Student Support Chain of services that supports retention-to-graduation is fragmented and in some respects deficient.  Academic advising is seen as very weak.  Advising is hit or miss.  Students are not required to see their advisor and there is no training for advisors.  The campus early alert system does not identify students who are at risk early enough and there is a lack of an integrated response to those situations. The Student Success Center is holding on to old ideas from the previous organization. First year services and services for upper class students ar e not linked adequately.  This includes advising and remedial education.  The First Year Office is responsible for first year retention efforts while the Office of Student Affairs is charged with retention beyond that.  The FYO is not proactive in dealing with the other colleges and their departments.  Having all freshmen advised by FYO and not anchored into the college they want to affiliate with is a problem.  Finally, it appears that there is no effort to connect residence hall programming to retention or to promote student success.”

The Lesson: Without a systemic approach to providing student services inside and outside the classroom, it is inevitable that students will “fall through the cracks.”

Any of this sound familiar even if the exact facts are a bit different?  We welcome your comments.