Boost Student Retention With A Campus-Culture-Focused Persistence Plan

Why Do Students Leave Campus? Debt, ‘Worthless Degrees, and No Sense of Belonging

Student Persistence

Two-year and four-year post-secondary schools around the country are struggling with student “persistence” and completion rates. Is yours? These rates are especially low among first-generation, minority, and other underserved student populations. If you want to improve your institution’s student outcomes, you need a conceptual and practical framework that’s both systematic and holistic.

Academic development expect Jerald Henderson breaks down the persistence problem and offers solutions in his live webinar for Eli Education, “Examining and Changing Institutional Practices to Improve Student Persistence and Student Success. According to Henderson, success begins with investing in a campus-wide culture that bolsters students’ relationships with your institution.

Persistence—Don’t Confuse it With Retention

As many as one-in-three first-year college students don’t show up for their second year, according to U.S. News & World Reports.

Why: “The reasons run the gamut from family problems and loneliness to academic struggles and a lack of money,” the magazine said.

But those rates refer to retention. Persistence is different—sorta.

 “The persistence rate is the percentage of students who return to college at any institution for their second year, while the retention rate is the percentage of students who return to the same institution,” explained the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“Of all students who started college in fall 2015, 73.4 percent persisted at any U.S. institution in fall 2016, while 61.1 percent were retained at their starting institution,” the organization said.

As with retention, persistence is a big deal in colleges, especially state-funded institutions that depend on enrollment for funding. After years of expansion, enrollment peaked in 2010 and has dropped every year since.

“The two types of colleges with the biggest declines in enrollment are: community colleges and for-profit universities,” reported CNN. “Those schools draw heavily from low-income and minority households.”

Why: The main theory for declining enrollment is that, thanks to an improving economy, students are opting to go straight to work and skip college and vocational training. That short-term benefit can be a long-term drawback, CNN added, since college graduates are likelier to be employed and earn about double what those with high school degrees earn.

“A college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class,” President Obama said last year, but between 2010 and 2014, college enrollment dropped by more than 800,000.

2 Clear Ideas for Improvement

“Many experiences shape student motivation to persist, not all of which are within the capacity of institutions to easily influence (e.g., events beyond the campus that pull students away from persistence),” reported Inside Higher Ed. “But of those that are, three stand out as being central to student motivation: students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging and perceived value of the curriculum.”

Those three include:

  • Self-efficacy, or a person’s belief in their ability to succeed
  • Sense of belonging
  • Perceived value of the curriculum

The Evolllution had a different take—focusing on the causes (not symptoms) of student drops, digging into the data, and creating a system-wide “persistence culture.”

“Persistence is everyone’s business and should be top of mind from the first enrollment meeting—when student obstacles are initially discussed and addressed—until graduation,” wrote Laura Bristow.

On the other hand, there’s growing frustration with spending huge amounts of money on degrees with little practical importance, insisted financial talk show host Dave Ramsey, who frequently rants about student debt for degrees that simply don’t pay off.

“In general your first goal for education is the practical application of it in the marketplace to earn you more money—and you have to use some stinking sense about that,” he told one listener.

(Those curious what those so-called “worthless degrees” are can check out a list at The Simple Dollar.)

Whatever your student retention & persistence approach is, says Henderson, almost every post-secondary school in America is in need of one—now.

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Jeff Schmerker
About Jeff Schmerker
Jeff has extensive professional experience writing on a variety of topics, from pharmaceutical research to environmental history. He has published more than a half-dozen books, and he has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and restaurant reviewer. He lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife and son.