student success

Three characteristics of exceptional college student retention programs

Timothy Culver

Vice President, Consulting Services

March 28, 2012

Exceptional retention strategies, as outlined in this blog post by Tim Culver, create higher levels of college student satisfaction and improve college persistence rates, completion rates, and graduation rates.
Tim Culver examines past winners of the Retention Excellence Awards and analyzes consistently-successful characteristics that may work well for other institutions.

In 1989, Lee Noel and Randi Levitz created the Retention Excellence Awards (REA) to honor colleges and universities that had established the most successful, state-of-the art retention programs. Since the program began, 26 community colleges, 31 private four-year campuses, and 84 public four-year colleges and universities have received Retention Excellence Awards. Every year, they are honored at the National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing, and Retention. As a result of this national exposure, these award-winning programs have served as models of retention excellence to stimulate the creativity and energy of hundreds of two-year and four-year institutions.

I was thinking that there are probably are common characteristics among these programs and thought it would be fun and illuminating to review them to get a sense of what makes them exceptional. Our panel of national judges uses criteria to assess the winners each year, but for my own review I used a very informal, non-scientific, non-computerized coding approach (I will call it Culver Coding) to see what came to the top. (Descriptions of all the winning programs are available in a PDF compendium at the Noel-Levitz site.)

When the dust cleared and Culver Coding was deemed successful (by Culver of course), here is what I saw. Most of these outstanding programs have three commonalities among them.

1) Relying on historical data to inform retention strategy

Many of you know that we tend to put strategies in place because the literature says strategies are a good idea. I’m not discounting the literature at all, but you have to make sure your data point you toward optimal strategies. For example, when I consult with campuses on student retention, I tend to focus quite often on successful completion of developmental mathematics. It is often the first question I ask when I am working with my community college clients or any campus that offers developmental coursework. The literature tells us that breadth and depth issues (for instance, looking beyond math, does the student need reading and writing coursework, and how much math?) are very impactful of success in college. Although please make sure you look at your breadth and depth data before you embark on major course redesign.

2) Informing future practice through effective assessment of outcomes

Look at recent REA winners and this theme comes across loud and clear. The Community College of Baltimore County submitted a proposal to our national panel of judges for the 2011 competition. They were attempting to improve success for students in the School for Health Professions (see page 126 of the compendium). They used their historical data to guide their decisions to use workshops, Supplemental Instruction™, and early alert tactics (including tutoring) to impact the success rates of their students. This excerpt from their proposal explains the use of data and outcomes assessment:

“Students who failed the first exam in their first course but who were able to rebound and pass the course increased significantly after implementation. Before this initiative, a student’s first exam score was considered so predictive that very low scorers were termed unrecoverable. Between fall 2006 and spring 2008, a student failing the first exam had only a 10 to 33 percent chance of passing the course. After the intervention, between 41 and 64 percent of the students with a poor start rebounded to pass the course; further, the ability to compensate after a poor start produced gains in course passage and graduation rates by as much as 31 percent and 14 percent respectively.”

As you think about strategies you may want to implement, please include historical data and outcomes assessment to determine if the new approach really worked.

3) Making programs and services intrusive and intentional

Perhaps the most important strategy of all, these campuses decided—based upon data—that the best approach would be to provide services designed to help students be successful. When the word intrusive showed up on our retention scene years ago, many of us rebelled against it because we believed that it meant that we have to INTRUDE upon the student’s world…like….it was a negative. Over the years I’ve come to believe that it means just exactly what Lee Noel and Randi Levitz said many years ago. “Give them what they need before they know they need it.”

That is exactly what winning programs do. You can see it throughout the compendium, even in some of the earliest winners. For example, one of the winners from 1992, Chicago State University (host city to our conference this year), introduced a Developmental Mathematics Program that was very intentional and intrusive based upon their historical success rates. For 1992 it was state-of-the-art practice, and if you read about it you’ll see that the strategies were intrusive and intentional.

So, please get your historical data to support and inform your strategy, provide intrusive and intentional programs and services and assess your outcomes. This is approach will undoubtedly help you to determine if your retention programs are truly exceptional.

You can download the compendium at the Retention Excellence Awards page. The 2012 nominations are closed, but we will open nominations again later this year. I also welcome your feedback, comments, and questions about building state-of-the-art retention programs. Feel free to leave a comment below, or send me an e-mail.

About the Author

Dr. Tim Culver leads the retention consulting services of Ruffalo Noel Levitz, offering counsel to help institutions develop, implement, and evaluate plans for improving enrollment, student success, persistence, retention, and degree completion rates. He has...

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