At the start of this academic year, my president asked me to chair our campus’s latest version of a student retention task force. I appreciated the respect this invitation signified for the work of student affairs, and I share with you some of my key learnings about student retention.
It Takes A Campus. The composition of the task force reflected the fundamental value that retention is one of those challenges that truly involves
all elements of a campus community. On our campus, the following offices
were represented on the task force by senior leadership: faculty, admissions,
academic deans, institutional research, financial aid, academic advising,
dean of students, and technology services.
Data Rich and Synthesis Challenged. We found we were rich with retention-related data,
but were challenged to effectively synthesize it and apply it to our day-to-day work. Our fall
semester weekly meetings were dedicated to synthesizing the data collected over the years.
NSSE Knows. After sifting through a three-inch thick notebook of data and research from
numerous sources, we found the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to be the
single most useful tool for informing our retention work. It was the most predictive in identifying the variables that differentiated students who persisted from those who did not.
Listen to Students. In spite of our treasure trove of data, we found we needed to employ
one more data-gathering tool: focus groups with students who were at risk or had made “
departure gestures,” indicating their intention to transfer, but never transferring. These students’
stories added substance to the raw numbers.
Faculty Members are Central. Our biggest takeaway from those student conversations was
the centrality of individual faculty members in students’ decisionmaking processes. For better or
worse, the students consistently cited faculty interactions as a critical variable in their learning
experiences and their decisions to leave or remain in school. This finding has led us to conversations about better preparation for faculty to advise and refer students.
Not Just About the Money. Contrary to what may be the popular and logical notion,
retention was not predominantly about financial aid. Certainly money is an important factor
for many students, but rarely did we learn of situations where the increase in financial aid alone
would have made the difference in student retention. Engagement was consistently the more
Who’s Minding the Store. We found that administrative responsibility for retention does not
have to involve more money or staff, but our efforts do need to be monitored. There are many
places where this responsibility could reside including student affairs, academic affairs, or enrollment management. A culture of collaboration is critical when it comes to student retention.
In this issue you can read how the University of Pittsburgh is working with under-represented
students to boost retention rates. But don’t stop there. Boost your knowledge of management
coaching, learn the latest about town–gown relations, and find new ways to serve transfer
students. We face many challenges in our jobs, but having resources like NASPA and Leadership
Exchange can help improve service to our students and our institutions. I encourage you to take
full advantage of what your NASPA membership has to offer. LE
Administrators in Higher Education
Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy
Nancy E. Grund
Leah Ewing Ross
James E. Scott Academy
Cynthia Cherrey, Chair
James F. Conneely
Gary L. McGrath
Eliseo “Cheo” Torres
Barry L. Wells
James F. Vick
Leadership Exchange is published
four times a year for senior student
affairs officers in higher education.
Letters to the editor are welcome.
For subscription information and
advertising opportunities, please
contact the NASPA office.
1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20009-5728
Copyright © 2009 by the National
Association of Student Personnel
Administrators (NASPA), Inc. Printed
and bound in the United States of
America. All rights reserved. No part
of this publication may be reproduced
in any form or by any electronic or
mechanical means without written
permission from the publisher.
NASPA does not discriminate on the
basis of race, color, national origin,
religion, sex, age, gender identity,
gender expression, affectional or sexual
orientation, or disability in any of its
policies, programs, and services.