Cathy Anderson

How do we harness the energy of information? Through Education!!

College Completion and Retention

Written By: Cathy - Mar• 09•13

Learning Wordle



I plan on doing more research and writing on college completion and retention.


The focus for colleges is on Completion  for students.  Community Colleges, with the open enrollment mission, are sometimes cast in a bad light because the completion  rates they report are sometimes below the line.


I think retention is just what an institution does and I don’t think a student’s relationship with an institution ends when he or she graduates, but should be a place he/she returns to for continuous career development.  Madison Area Technical College has this statement on their retention web site:


Retention is a deliberate result of faculty and staff connecting with students in ways that create welcoming and supportive environments which fosters their success.


The standard definition for open enrollment is:

: enrollment on demand as a student in an institution of higher learning irrespective of formal qualifications

(retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/open%20enrollment)

And this definition:

The definition of open admissions implies a commitment to assess student potential and to provide appropriate developmental and remedial programs of study as may be required.

(retrieved from http://www.fdtc.edu/admissions/enrollment/open.asp )


And this:

Open admissions (sometimes called open enrollment) is a type of unselective and non-competitive college admissions process in the United States in which the only criterion for entrance is a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate.

(retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_admissions)


The standard definition for completion is

In March 2012 The Chronicle of Higher Education published a series of articles on college completion that addressed this very question.  In fact they have a site devoted to this very effort:  College Completion.  In Jeff Selingo’ s  March 2, 2012 The Rise and Fall of the Graduation Rate  he identifies that, “More than 15 years later, the debate over how to measure college graduation rates and what they measure rages on.”

Selingo presents, and rightly so in my opnion that the definition of graduation does not match the reality of who the student is and who they go to college the definition used by the National Center for Educational Statistics is:

This annual component of IPEDS was added in 1997 to help institutions satisfy the requirements of the Student Right-to-Know legislation. Data are collected on the number of students entering the institution as full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students in a particular year (cohort), by race/ethnicity and gender; the number completing their program within 150 percent of normal time to completion; the number that transfer to other institutions if transfer is part of the institution’s mission. Prior to 2007, institutions who offered athletically-related student aid were asked to report, by sport, the number of students receiving aid and whether they completed within 150 percent of normal time to completion. Now, these institutions only need to report a URL where the athletic data is located on their website, when available. GR automatically generates worksheets that calculate rates, including average rates over 4 years.





However, in a time when many working adults are returning to college part time and even traditional aged students (recent high school grads) maybe choosing the model of part time education so they can also work part time does not reflect the actual approach of students to their education.  In fact many students who choose to go to college full time may actually stop out and return a year or two later, as family and financial circumstances allow.

While these are all reasons why an institution’s graduation rate may not accurately reflect the student they are serving it does not detract from the need to continuously improve retention and services to students.

Madison Area Technical College defines and explains retention very well:


Retention comes in more than one form. Some students remain enrolled full-time each semester until graduation. Some students remain enrolled, but on a part-time basis and yet other students, called stop- outs, leave the college at one point and then come back. Transfer students begin at one institution and then transfer to another – an often normal and successful progression.

The Madison College Retention Plan focuses on first-time, first-year students enrolling from fall-to-fall. The current rate of first-time, first-year students who enrolled at Madison College and returned for the fall semester a year later is 55.8%. Their persistence rate, which is defined as first-time, first-year students who enroll in the fall and remain enrolled the following spring, is 72.2%.

It is worth noting, it’s not possible, or necessary, to retain 100% of our students from one fall to the next. Some students in fact intend to leave for transfer opportunities to four-year colleges, for job opportunities, and for a variety of other successful reason


The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Complete College website reports that since 2004 almost 2.1 Million of students who started their college education didn’t finish,  “This number isn’t exact, because it includes both drop-outs and students who started at one college and graduated from another and that  of 1.2 Million It’s impossible to know whether many freshmen graduated or not, because the U.S. government simply doesn’t track them. Part-time students are among those not counted.


I think the reason why part-time students aren’t counted is because many of them self-pay.  So it would be a remarkable study to conduct to determine their satisfaction rate and completion rate.



What are some of the variables you can note “off the top of your head” that impact student retention?  Some of mine are:


Career interests:  I think this is a huge factor. A Student should know the requirements and about the career they are pursuing in higher education.  Knowing this will make the academic work meaningful and the student more likely to stay engaged and motivated.

I have seen some good initiatives to engage students in learning about various careers such as career fairs where members from business and industry come to a middle school or high school and talk about their careers and what preparation they needed to achieve their career goals.  There are career inventory programs that assess a student’s career interests and skills and identify associated careers for them.   Students can also participate in internships and technical co-ops to gain hands on experience in a career.  Programs such as O-Net present skills and information associated with different careers.


Fundamental to retention is relationship building and a college can start relationship building with a student long before he or she is ready to go to college.  This can occur by providing summer camps for middle/junior high school aged students through college.  Summer camps can be career focused, those that are especially popular are health care related to music campus to athletics.    During the school year providing and promoting opportunities for student to tour the campus are also popular.  K-12 teachers are often looking for ways to tie career focused activities to their curriculum and this is one way of doing so.


Know who your student is, their high school GPA, placement scores, education background, demographics information.  Much of this will also be driven by your institution and how it defines itself and therefore the student it attracts.   Know what defines an at-risk student and who that student is on your campus.  Start support services for that student immediately via developing an individualized learning plan, not only for at risk students but all students.    Conducting a College Student Inventory assessment to all incoming freshmen during Orientation (NSO) either face-to-face or online and may be one way of gathering this information.    There are now ones available electronically that are excellent.  These will help identify students who will need special assistance.   Some risk factors identified via these surveys include:


Some risk factors include:

  •    Delaying entry into college
  •    Not having a regular high school diploma
  •    Having children
  •    Being a single parent
  •    Being financially independent of parents
  •    Working full-time while enrolled
  •    Lack of student engagement
  •    First-generation college student



Another survey is the Student Satisfaction Inventory which is administered to current students and is a survey instrument designed to determine  student perceptions of their education  and how satisfied students are with the institution.


Know your program.  What does it take to succeed, academically, in a certain program? Some of this is driven, not only by the curriculum and the industry expectations, but also by accreditation rules and standards.  Reality is that if accreditation requires a certain standard of retention then the students admitted must be academically prepared to succeed in the program.    Provide faculty with professional development opportunities that will not only improve their knowledge of industry  and ensure that the program is current and relevant,  but also professional development that will ensure their skills in classroom management and methodology is relevant.


What sort of student support services are in place at your institution and how are these communicated to the student?   And if students are referred how are they following through with that referral?   Create a web page that provides this information, i.e.) student support services to students and faculty.







Does your institution have a retention plan that ties the student support services departments to academics?


There are three “actors” in retention that Houston Community College has defined very well on their website, the students, the faculty and the institution /department.    I suggest you review their website for the detailed responsibilities defined under each.


Academic Preparedness, Course and Program Retention,  Graduation and Goal Completion,  Academic Climate,  Academic Policy,   Student-Centered Climate, Institutional Policies, Procedures, Systems, and Services,  Physical facilities,  Implementation



The following processes are common to retention planning:


Retention data, assessment information, and awareness of retention activities should be made available to all in the institution, survey returning and non returning students annual and use that data to refine the plan and make improvements in services.    Setting retention goals, performance measures and tracking progress are all essential to the effectiveness of the plan.   A major part of the retention plan should include IMPLEMENTATION! This plan does not just go on the shelf and planning is never really done..adhere to the Plan, Do, Check , Act cycle…







Information from ACT’s 2010 Retention Survey for Community Colleges:

This report presents the findings for community colleges that participated in ACT’s 2010 What Works in Student Retention survey.







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