Steps Towards Student Retention

Recently I was approached by my superiors and asked to present a new plan in regards to student retention. Student retention? I thought, "Don't we already have policy in place? I'm sure we do." I've had to deal with a few dropouts over the years as the coordinator of Film Production at a prominent film school, and I have issued a few "leave of absence" letters knowing the students receiving them probably won't be back at all. In fact, I affectionately termed those students the "on-the-fence dropouts." The ones that just weren't willing to commit one way or the other. So why this request now? We did have an unusual spike in the dropout rate, but surely it wasn't a trend… was it? Sure enough, the more I looked into this request, the more I discovered there was indeed a growing trend in attrition; not just with our school, but other institutions as well.

I asked myself, "Why are they dropping out? What is the cause?" Maybe the students just don't feel they are getting what they wanted from their program. What do they want? A solid education. A safe environment in which to learn and explore. Guidance. A clear direction where they plainly see the end goal. Or maybe they just want to know that there is something there at the end of their time with us.

What Do Today's Students Need?
Perhaps they also want the "college experience" — and by that I mean something different then their previous experiences with education. Today's students are unique, and pose unique challenges in engaging their interests. They have taken in so much media by the time we meet them that it can be difficult to identify their specific frame of reference on any given matter. What we may recognize as a classic pop culture reference they may have heard delivered through a Simpsons parody spoof with no idea whatsoever of its origin. This information is delivered and absorbed so differently than in previous generations of students. It's certainly worth considering.

The problem with student retention is a big issue, but are we as educators the ones letting them down? Is it merely that they've changed their minds, or is it money issues? Are these students just not engaged? I think maybe it's a combination of all these. A challenge for any higher learning institution is finding the balance between admissions and retention. So much focus is put on recruiting great new students and little is put on cultivating an environment to nourish those new entries. A successful retention programs starts with the students. Many retention initiatives focus on "red flags" and early warning signs. While these methods have proper merit in post-secondary education (or PSE) they lack corrective behavior, which leads to an ongoing game of college whack-a-mole.

What Has Worked
In Canada, many of the higher learning institutions most successful at retention have focused on equipping their students through development and incentive, rather than merely trying to stamp out fires. These institutions, through lengthy data collecting initiatives, learned that regardless of outside interveners, the best method of avoiding unsightly attrition was to create happy and educationally healthy students. In 2009, Seneca College in Toronto, Confederation College in Thunder Bay and Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, decreased their attrition rate by 66.5 to 69.6 percent across the monitored programs. The student persistence was achieved through ongoing orientation, incentives and coaching.

Many institutions feel they do not have the time, manpower or budget to invest in an extensive retention program. However, a mere retention increase of five percent at George Brown College in Toronto could potentially lead to an increase of revenue in the millions. Conversely, it increases proud alumni, who spread their pleasure and skill set around, essentially acting as billboards for the institution and potentially increasing enrollment and positive reputation.

Identifying the Obstacles
There are many obstacles in achieving similar Seneca-like results, and this is where the aforementioned indicators do become relevant. Unfortunately no matter how much time and effort you invest in your retention program there will always be certain students who are on a path to dropping out. In Canada specifically, persistence in education can become a fight between support, finances, work and program interest. Unfortunately, most of the students who apply to colleges, trade and technical schools do so for the sole endgame of gainful employment.

In 2008, 79 percent of all the applicants to these forms of schools were "first-generation PSEs," meaning that they are the first of their immediate family unit to attend post-secondary education. Of those 79 percent, 50 percent have at least one parent who did not even graduate high school as such. Sixty percent of first-gen parents show little to no support or positive influence on their student(s). Due to lack of parental support, these students often have no savings and must rely on financial aid or employment income to pay tuition, and these factors can cause a great deal of stress on the learning process.

First-generation PSEs are not the only clearly identified high-risk group that has consistent dropout rates. In the same group are late-entry students (i.e., mature students), students with disabilities and aboriginals. The challenges these students face are broader, and pose problems for retention plans. On average, the three main reasons cited for dropping out were: 1) money or financial, 2) work and life balance and 3) job advancement. By exploring what these motivators all have in common we can draw a similarity to some of the challenges that first-gens also face — when it comes to work, family and finances versus an unknown future, the immediate situation has the greater pull. Consequently, these students have little to no external motivators to spend years in school.

Institutional Investment
This brings us back to institutional investment in students. Admission departments do a fabulous job of convincing low-socioeconomic status (SES) individuals to invest in their futures by attending higher learning institutions. But once these students are in the door they quickly get lost in a fast-fluctuating catalogue of student IDs. Low-SES students don't know who to ask for help, as they are used to a lower level of support in general. Soon any motivation for success that the student once had is dwindled away by deadlines, finances, possible alienation and an oblivious institutional support system.

The best way to retain these students is to identify the low-SESs and first-gens, and then nurture them. Allow them the independence to achieve their goals while still nurturing them every step of the way. Guide them on the best path possible for their individual needs. It's not enough to get a qualified student in the door; the real challenge is the clear measure of an institution's ability to successfully graduate a student from any walk of life.

There are plenty of measures an institution can take when developing a retention-specific approach to guiding these fledgling students. Seneca inspired many of their low achievers by offering them access to the retention program through attractive incentives. If the student maintained a GPA of 2.0, remained in the program each semester, missed no more than 12 classroom hours, and remained eligible to be enrolled, the student was entitled to a bursary of $750 towards tuition at the beginning of each subsequent semester. This program incentive was a roaring success, and no doubt was one of the major contributors to their increase to 66.5 percent retention.

Other colleges in Ontario took slightly different approaches. Many focused mostly on student success over incentive. Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, developed a program that put students in the driver's seat by making sure they had a say in their educational experience. It also made the instructors/professors at fault for any missteps that could be avoided. Each of the instructors was trained on how to be a better mentor to the students, and were continuously instructed to ask their students on a one-on-one basis how they were doing, and then guiding them towards plans of action to achieve overall success. At George Brown, peer leaders are involved. Seniors of each program are asked to take new students under their wings, not just for tutelage but also to help guide them through the college experience. This allows students to see the end game, and see what wonderful things are being done just a few semesters ahead of them. It's a relatively new process, but was a major component to George Brown's five percent increase in retention in the program's first year.

In all, educators and educational institutions need to consider the growing needs and changes that our current generation of students face. How they absorb information; their needs, wants and desires also need to be addressed if we are to succeed. We can achieve our goals not only through the various examples I have laid out in this article, but also by better equipping and training our staffs to recognize early on that a students' pre-entry characteristics versus their post-entry experiences determines their level of retention. Also, those students "on the fence" can be saved with just a little bit of planning and willingness by the institution to invest the time and effort to lower attrition forever.

Christopher Lane is the coordinator of the Film Production program at the Toronto Film School, part of University/RCC Institute. He is an accomplished film and television producer/director/writer, film historian and Marketing and Promotional Media professor. He can be contacted at cblane@rogers.com.

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