Persistence and Retention at Colleges and Universities

The dictionary definition of persistence is having a “firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty and oppression.” For many college students in America, that definition accurately describes their college experience. Gone are the days when average students could aim to attend college out of pocket and stress-free while being all but assured a well-paying job in their field upon graduation. In many ways, most modern bachelor’s degrees have decreased so much in employment value that they can almost be considered the new high school degree.

It’s easy to see this shift in society, with many graduates feeling that graduating with a college degree is a societal expectation rather than an opportunity for celebration of years of hard work and sacrifice. While I must note that I am in no way suggesting that an overall increase in the average education of society is a negative thing by any means, I simply want to remind university administrators, higher education policy analysts, elected officials, and families that in the overwhelming majority of cases, socioeconomic factors have a disproportionately high effect on the outcomes of students nationwide, particularly minorities. As a result, one can’t help but observe how much more well equipped some students are to face and overcome obstacles that may stand in the way of them obtaining the expected college diploma than others.

Typically, these students are set up for success from the womb and their path to higher education has been ordained for 15-plus years. As expected, these students typically have the highest career earnings, retire the earliest, and set their children up well for success in the future. While it would be wonderful to be blissfully ignorant and pretend that there is only one side to this narrative, it is important to remember that in the majority of cases only two or three main factors separate traditionally defined ‘successful’ college students and future wage earners from the students who struggle to achieve similar levels of achievement. It is paramount that administrators and lawmakers not only identify the disparity in outcomes among college students, but that they recognize how multifaceted the solutions to such problems are. Simply having positions dedicated to retention is not enough anymore, as students and their problems become more complex, so must the solutions to those problems.

Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio has taken a unique approach to address an aspect of retention—a student government-led task force made up of influential university administrators, faculty, members of the local community, and influential student leaders. This task force was formed by first identifying a problem: the university was retaining minority students at a much lower rate than other demographics, especially considering its proximity to numerous large predominantly minority high schools. The leaders of the task force recognized that this issue was not as simple as it may seem on the surface and worked to develop four primary categories that students who were not retained usually fell in: academic, economic, cultural, and personal. By bringing together established centers and resources at the university and pushing for increases in collaboration between those centers, sharing available resources, and having the full support of the President and Provost (in addition to the Board of Trustees and a plethora of other university officials), the members of the task force were able to develop a comprehensive and specific list of attainable, time-oriented goals to address each of the four reasons in a collaborative way.

This task force has been a tremendous initiative that has even received commendation from the Ohio Department of Higher Education. I firmly believe that the task force established at Wright State would serve as a tremendous blueprint for other universities that struggle with retention to follow. The general model starts with identifying the problem, recognizing what resources you already have at your disposal and how they can be used more collaboratively, building a team of diverse individuals from many disciplines and perspectives, and formulating a realistic and time-oriented plan to fix the issues.

While in the end, time will tell the true quantitative effect of the task force, one can not help but think that simply by placing such a large university-wide effort into tackling the issue of retention and having such intense student buy-in will be nothing but positive for the university and will ensure that the decision makers in higher education will not only work to continue to recognize these complex issues, but that they will listen to the students themselves and do what is necessary to support them as they try to pursue the American dream and set themselves up to be successful contributing members of society.