April 27, 2016
Defining student retention is not an academic exercise. It needs to be translated into next steps and best practices in order for community colleges to respond to the extraordinary challenges they are facing. As Linda Serra Hagedorn, an associate professor, Associate Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis (CHEPA), and program chair for the Community College Leadership program in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California finds, community college leaders need to work overtime to convince the public and governmental agencies that measuring college student retention is “complicated, confusing, and context dependent.” 
Greg Jarboe
Student Retention Definition Complicated, Confusing, Context Dependent

If taxpayers, legislators, or state policymakers Google “student retention definition,” then they are likely to find a summary of the answer, extracted from Wikipedia, in a special featured snippet block at the top of the search results page. And according to that featured snippet, “University student retention, sometimes referred to as persistence, is of increasing importance to college administrators as they try to improve graduation rates and decrease loss of tuition revenue from students that either drop out or transfer to another school.”

That’s why community college leaders need to work overtime to convince the public and governmental agencies that measuring college student retention is “complicated, confusing, and context dependent.” These are the findings of Linda Serra Hagedorn, an associate professor, Associate Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis (CHEPA), and program chair for the Community College Leadership program in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.

In a paper entitled, “How to define retention: A New Look at an Old Problem,” Hagedorn says there isn’t a “consensus on the ‘correct’ or ‘best’ way to measure this very important outcome.” And she illustrates this by looking at the most basic and non-controversial definitions of a college persister and a non-persister:

  • A student who enrolls in college and remains enrolled until degree completion is a persister.
  • A student who leaves the college without the earning a degree and never returns is a non-persister.

Hagedorn says, “While these definitions are simple and easy to understand, student paths are rarely this direct or straightforward.” And, she then provides examples of enrollment patterns that defy, or at least stretch these basic definitions:

  • Student A enrolls in a state university, remains enrolled for two years, “stops out,” and returns six years later.
  • Student B enrolls in a state university, remains for one year, and transfers to another university to complete his or her bachelor’s degree.
  • Student C enrolls in two community colleges simultaneously, ultimately earning a certificate from one of them.
  • Student D enrolls in community college but does not complete any credits. The next year the student reenrolls and remains continuously enrolled to complete an associate degree.
  • Student E begins in a community college and successfully transfers to a state university. However, the student is not successful at the university and leaves prior to earning any credits. The next semester the student returns to the community college taking the few remaining courses necessary to earn an associate degree.
  • Student F enrolls for a full-time load of 5 courses (15 units of college credits), but drops all but one class (3 units).
  • Student G enrolls in two courses, drops one keeping only a physical education course.   
  • Student H enrolls in a community college for a full load of remedial courses, reenrolling in the same courses the next semester because he or she has not yet mastered the material.  
  • Student I enrolls in a full-time load of courses, but due to low GPA and lack of progress is academically suspended.
  • Student J is judiciously expelled from the state university due to unlawful behavior.   

Hagedorn says, “These examples highlight the variability in student enrollment patterns that make it difficult to label one student a persister and another non-persister. Clearly, the simple dichotomous student outcome measures often employed in quantitative analysis do not capture the complexity in student progress. Rather, retention requires a series of measures, that when viewed with their complexity, allows researchers and administrators to measure student progress more accurately.”

Hagedorn also provides community college leaders with a quick story to illustrate the need for certain engaged groups to have multiple descriptors of phenomenon of particular interest. She shares the classic example of how the English language has one word for “snow” because that appears sufficient to describe the precipitation that falls from the sky when the weather outside dips below freezing. However for the central Alaskan Yup’ik people, there are multiple words for snow: one for powdered snow, another for blowing snow, a third for melted snow, etc. Life in central Alaska requires and therefore recognizes the differentiation of snow-types. In similar fashion, community college leaders need to promote the recognition and differentiation of different types of college retention and promote a more complex rather than a more simplistic measurement system.

An article in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice entitled, “Rethinking Student Retention in Community Colleges,” tackles this problem. Written by Linda Wild and Larry Ebbers of Iowa State University, the article says, “As faculty and administrators struggle with an escalating barrage of questions from public and governmental agencies about the effectiveness of the educational enterprise, they also are being challenged by legislative constraints on budgets. Understanding these forces and being able to take action pertaining to student retention may spell success or failure for state systems, as well as individual community colleges.”

Wild and Ebbers add, “The financial exigencies in operations that are facing community colleges also make retention a critical matter. For example, what college can ignore the potential revenue of several hundred thousand dollars to be gained by retaining students from year one to year two of their postsecondary education career?”

The authors observe that most of the research on student retention is based on “traditional-age students in the residential settings of universities, which provides the benchmarks by which universities manage and gauge their success in student retention. This research and its results do little for community colleges.”

Wild and Ebbers write, “Although community colleges and universities have commonalties in student attendance, curriculum, and achievement, the goals of the two categories of students often differ, particularly as they relate to workplace skill development. In addition, the community college learning environment is less homogenous due to the different demands of work and family for its students. It is difficult, therefore, to generalize the definitions and measures developed for student retention in universities to community colleges.”

For example, traditional research in the university context ‘‘implicitly or explicitly defines retention as on-time graduation,” according to their paper. However, a definition based on degree completion is especially troublesome for community colleges when graduation is not necessarily the goal of community college students. For the community college environment, defining student educational goals presents a much greater challenge than simply tracking rates of graduation.

Their paper provides these alternatives to the university-based definitions of retention:

  • “Program completion,”
  • ‘‘Meeting student objectives,”
  • “Maintenance of continued enrollment in classes throughout one semester.”
  • “The ratio of units that students successfully completed to the units attempted,”
  • “Achieving a student’s personal goal (for example, completion of a particular course, or acquisition of a particular skill),’’
  • “The percent of entering students graduating or persisting in their studies at an institution,”
  • “Maintenance of continued enrollment for two or more semesters, specifically from Fall term to Spring term,” and/or
  • “Completion of a degree/certificate or transfer to a four-year college.”

Another possibility for a definition of student retention for community colleges is provided by Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. At MECC student retention was defined as enrollment in a subsequent semester and academic achievement as completion of two-thirds of courses attempted with a 2.0 GPA or higher. This effort to base a definition of retention on consecutive semester enrollment and grade point average is especially indicative of the efforts to find a suitable ground for describing retention as it pertains to the community college student who is not dedicated to graduation.

Based on their review of the wide range of options, Wild and Ebbers believe that “a single definition of retention would be difficult to establish.” The authors recommend community colleges define student retention using several material factors, including: (1) an initial identification of the student’s goal; (2) periodic verification or adjustment of the goal; and (3) persistence of the student toward the goal.

So, what should entrepreneurial community college leaders do next? The Advocate of Affordable College recommends reading the report entitled, “Securing the Future: Retention Models in Community Colleges,” which was written by the Study of Community College Structures for Student Success (SCCSSS).

After a thoroughgoing literature review — which drew on knowledge gained from other projects, including Achieving the Dream (a Lumina Foundation initiative) and the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (a Center for Community College Student Engagement initiative) — the SCCSSS project was able to construct a set of institutional practices and organizational structures that have the potential to support community college student success. This comprehensive set formed the framework for a survey of community colleges aimed at understanding the prevalence and intensity of such practices and structures in American community colleges.

The report’s findings encompass two sets of concepts: Foundational Structures and Adapted Policy Levers. The first of these sets, Foundational Structures, includes three constructs: (1) Supporting Institutional Leadership and Intensity of Effort; (2) Cultivating a Positive Institutional Climate for Diversity; and (3) Fostering a Culture of Evidence. The second set of constructs, Adapted Policy Levers, includes three constructs, all of which are associated with activities that work directly and in tandem with one another to support student success: (1) Facilitating Access to Financial Aid; (2) Developing Excellence and Coordination in Student Support Services; and (3) Providing Curricular Structure, Organization, and Focus.

For example, institutional leadership is key in community colleges’ efforts to improve student success. This makes intuitive sense, of course, but the literature bears this out as well, showing that the resources, structures, and leadership dedicated to improving student outcomes are important in an institution’s foundation for student success. Studies have noted as well that the quality of implementation, or the intensity of institutional effort, also makes a critical difference in the effectiveness of student success programs. For these reasons, questions focusing on institutional leadership and institutional intensity of effort were a central component of the SCCSSS survey. Organizational structures identified for this component include designating an individual and establishing committees to oversee retention and diversity efforts, giving authority to the retention coordinator, having a written plan, coordinating across efforts, working toward being a learner-centered institution, facilitating transformational institutional change, and promoting faculty development.

The report also includes the results of a nationwide survey of community college leaders that provide an accurate, research-based view of how and to what extent the practices and structures in the matrix are currently in place at community colleges across the country. The questions addressed in this survey focused on structures within 10 topic areas commonly found to support student retention and success at community colleges: (1) coordination of student success efforts, (2) assessment and reporting, (3) climate for diversity, (4) financial aid, (5) student orientation, (6) academic advising, (7) early warning and academic support, (8) developmental education, (9) student support, and (10) curriculum.

For example, academic advising is an essential support for the success of community college students — many of whom are first generation in college and may need guidance in adapting to the academic demands of higher education. At the community colleges responding to the SCCSSS survey, degree-seeking students were required to meet with an academic advisor each term at a larger proportion of small institutions (55.6 percent) than midsize (31.7 percent) or large (10.3 percent) institutions — a contrast that could be attributable to differences across these institutions’ sizes and the numbers of students needing support services. Students on academic probation were required to meet with an academic advisor at over 70 percent of large and small community colleges. Academic advising was reportedly available to students at large institutions during evenings (63.6 percent) and on weekends (14.0 percent) at higher percentages than those reported by small institutions. The presence of academic advisors focused specifically on transfer issues was also reported by a majority of large institutions (67.9 percent), compared to only 33.3 percent of small institutions.

The Advocate of Affordable College recommends reading the report because defining student retention is not an academic exercise. It needs to be translated into next steps and best practices in order for community colleges to respond to the extraordinary challenges they are facing. As the report says, “There is no presumption that community colleges have not been struggling with these issues for many years. As the research shows, many have found some success. It is this success that the following report highlights and disseminates.” It is our hope that entrepreneurial community college leaders will see value in the findings and use them to advance the very important work that community colleges are doing.

(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)