Do We Have a Retention Problem … Or Do We Have a Problem About Retention?

This paper, like many being written these days, deals with the “problem” of student retention in higher education. But unlike most, this paper focuses not on the problem of retention per se but rather on how institutional leaders think about student retention, completion, and success–how the way they frame their concerns about retention can give rise to a different sort of problem. Something we might call the “meta-problem” of student retention.

Before exploring the meta-problem, though, it is important to acknowledge that there are any number of very valid, practical problems–from tracking at-risk students to providing requisite remediation and counseling services to addressing on-campus alcohol abuse–that need to be addressed to ensure that students achieve all that they are capable of achieving in their college careers. With so much evidence of inadequate preparation, unforeseen academic difficulty, unnecessary emotional turmoil, unfulfilled promise and wasted tuition dollars, who would argue against doing everything possible to encourage student persistence and completion? Thankfully, toward that end, a burgeoning array of proven strategies and techniques is available to college administrators and faculty. Nothing in what follows is meant to suggest that these should not be deployed with the utmost enthusiasm and to ever-greater effect.

Retention Tensions

That said, however, we need to acknowledge another phenomenon–a byproduct perhaps of the growing national preoccupation with retention–which may be increasingly familiar to institutional administrators and faculty alike. It is a phenomenon observed more in faculty lounges than in conference rooms, more behind the scenes than on websites. We observe it when faculty members who rarely push back publicly against their institution’s laudable commitment to fostering student “success” privately express great concern about what they perceive as a willingness to dilute academic rigor in pursuit of student retention. We observe it in the decision-making struggles of admissions officers who, as a matter of institutional mission, feel an obligation to reach out to at-risk, disadvantaged students while at the same time, as a matter of academic reputation, are encouraged to increase student selectivity.

These are examples of the kinds of institutional tensions surrounding matters of student retention which, if left unaddressed, can seriously undermine efforts to implement truly needed retention initiatives.

I suggest we shift our focus, from our usual preoccupation with finding solutions to the retention problems we believe we have, to reframing the retention problem we wish to solve. We can do this is by reassessing the strategic significance of student attrition and mitigating its institutional impact.

How Significant Is Retention Problem?

Not every school that experiences less than the highest levels of student retention and completion necessarily has a significant retention problem.

First of all, there are reasons for attrition that may be beyond an institution’s control.  As shown in Fig. 1, reasons for student attrition can be viewed as progressing from those that are almost entirely personal with little or no potential for the school to affect the stay/leave decision, to those that are the result of interactions between the student and school such that the institution can play a role in influencing the outcome.

Fig. 1

A Continuum of Reasons for Attrition



There are at least six broad (and, at times, overlapping) reasons students might choose to drop out or transfer from an institution of higher education. They range from personal and family circumstances and preferences, to preparedness for college-level work and adjustment to college life, to issues arising from the availability of desired offerings and positive or negative experiences at the institution.

  • Circumstances Personal circumstances specific to a student and his/her family may cause that student to drop out or transfer. The reasons can include personal illness, family illness or obligations, financial problems, a need for full-time employment or logistical problems posed by distance from home.
  • Preferences The student may choose to leave because he/she preferred another school to begin with, and matriculated only out of necessity or until improvement in grades permitted transfer. Other preferences regarding the student body, amenities, location, etc. might also figure into the decision.
  • Preparedness Inadequate academic preparation that results in poor grades or, conversely, inadequate academic challenge for students with a high level of preparation and expectation, may result in a decision to leave the school.
  • Adjustment The student may be emotionally unprepared to be on his/her own or unable to make the necessary social adjustments to college life. The student may be unhappy with roommates or stressed by other aspects of the social life at the school.
  • Offerings The student may be disappointed in the school’s program offerings (academic and/or extracurricular, athletic, etc.) either because what had been promised was not, in fact, available or because the student changed academic or other interests along the way.
  • Experience Desired program offerings and other features may be available but so poorly delivered or the curriculum may be so difficult to navigate (especially after failing a critical course) that the student’s experience is negative enough to precipitate a decision to leave.

At one extreme, Circumstances and Preferences are reasons for attrition that tend to be the least susceptible to institutional influence on the stay/leave decision. As we move to the right on this continuum, Preparedness and Adjustment combine both personal and institutional factors in ways that may permit the school to take steps to successfully preempt a decision to drop out or transfer. And, as we approach the other extreme where the institution can be most influential, we see how Offerings and Experience more substantively speak to the school’s role in providing desired (or promised) programs and experiences, and in delivering them with a high degree of student satisfaction.

Viewed in this context of a continuum of shared student-school responsibility and limited institutional influence, a school’s leaders might well conclude that, given the particular student mix and factors at play, the current retention level is already close to the best level achievable.

Other Ways of Gauging Significance

There are other ways of assessing the institutional significance of retention (or attrition) that are worth considering before investing considerable time, energy and dollars in “fixing the problem.”  Those charged with doing the fixing should first ask themselves:  Are our current levels of student retention and completion significant . . .

  • When we consider our historical performance. When viewed in light of the school’s own historical performance, current retention and completion results may or may not signal a trend worrisome enough to warrant a comprehensive retention-enhancement program.
  • When we consider the retention performance of peer institutions. Even if retention measures were not such an important part of the US News college rankings, it would make sense to compare one’s own performance to that of peer institutions. Such benchmarking inevitably raises valuable questions that enable a school’s leaders to better understand why their own institution outperforms its peers.
  • When we consider the performance to be expected at schools like ours. Sometimes, benchmarking against peer or aspirant schools can leave too much room for debate of the “apples and oranges” variety. On the other hand, looking at institutions with comparable levels of student high school achievement, family income, age, number of dependents, and commuting students can be far more revealing in terms of gauging the significance of one’s own retention performance.
  • When we consider our preferred or desired performance. Regardless of historical or comparative performance, every school is free to set goals based on its own particular mission, values and vision. These goals can be powerful motivators even as they may depart from prevailing norms.  Recognizing those norms, however, needs to be part of any full assessment of retention performance.
  • When we calculate the foregone revenues involved. There is a cost in foregone tuition and fee revenue that is incurred as a consequence of attrition. For some schools, this financial cost can be so intolerable that it is the major driver of concern about student retention and the major factor in assessing retention significance.
  • In light of certain rigorous programs, or even certain types of students, for which a given level of attrition may be acceptable or even desirable in order to maintain standards. What if improving retention came at the cost of lowering academic standards–would doing so be desirable? Are there certain programs or student subgroups for which our current attrition level is tolerable or even desirable? As noted earlier, this concern about the potential for diluting academic rigor can be one of the more contentious issues raised by a retention-enhancement program.
  • When we assess the degree to which those who persist through graduation are, in fact, satisfied and subsequently support the institution as alumni. Thinking about retention significance in terms of post-graduation behavior is rare, but can be a good test of what retention at any cost might actually mean.  Is it really a good thing to retain and graduate dissatisfied students who go on to become disgruntled, non-supporting alumni?

The Retention-Satisfaction Matrix

This last point about dissatisfied–yet retained–students deserves further comment, as it raises the rarely mentioned possibility that mere retention through completion might not always be the most appropriate institutional goal.  Consider the implications of the Retention-Satisfaction Matrix presented in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2

Retention-Satisfaction Matrix

As indicated above, virtually every matriculating student begins her or his college experience in the upper-left quadrant–both satisfied and retained.

Over time, some may become less satisfied yet continue to persist (upper right.)  As time goes on and they (and their parents) become increasingly invested in the school and their accrued credits become increasingly difficult to transfer, their dissatisfaction may be overridden by a willingness to persist through to degree completion. Unfortunately, these graduates will probably not become the most ardent supporters of their alma mater.

Some students, however, may become so dissatisfied they drop out (lower-right.)

And there are others who, although satisfied, are compelled to leave for academic, personal and/or financial reasons (lower-left.)

Finally, there are likely to be some students for whom this school was not their first choice. They may move quickly into the upper right quadrant, where they are at risk of dropping out early. If they cannot be retained, they may need help in finding a more suitable school. This would argue for transfer policies that smooth the student’s transition to another school. It would also argue for heightened attention paid to such students from the outset in an effort to change their opinion of the school and perhaps convince them that this was a good fit for them, after all.

While the institution’s objective should be to maximize the number of students in the upper-left quadrant over the full extent of their academic careers, what about those students in the upper-right and lower-left quadrants?  In both cases, these students are making decisions which belie their ostensible satisfaction levels–decisions that are suboptimal and potentially damaging to the school. What should we do about them?

Dissatisfied Persisters

Students who persist at a school despite relatively low levels of satisfaction are not only at risk of becoming less than supportive alumni, but may also spread their negative opinions of the institution to others. Were they to do so via the Internet with all of its potential for viral amplification, the damage to the school’s reputation and future recruitment efforts could be substantial. To forestall such an outcome, the school would do well to continually monitor student satisfaction levels and take steps that improve those levels, especially on behalf of students in this category. Should such efforts fail, follow-up actions to mitigate the consequences of their disaffection would certainly be in order (more on this below).

Satisfied Dropouts

Conversely, students who drop out despite relatively high levels of satisfaction not only deprive the school of potentially high-performing students, but also of grateful alumni. Although they continue to hold the school in high regard, some in this quadrant may leave only because their academic or career objectives have changed and the school no longer meets their needs. Helping them transfer to a more appropriate setting may be rewarded by the maintenance of a long-term relationship that includes: returning as adult learners; providing financial, mentoring or other kinds of support; and/or generating future student referrals.

Having stepped back from the presenting problems of retention practice to consider the meta-problem of retention significance, we can now see that this complex web of issues surrounding student attrition, persistence and success is not so easily reduced to a single institution-wide approach. Indeed, it’s not even clear that a dropout is necessarily an institutional failure, if the school is willing to maintain contact in hopes of retaining the former student’s goodwill and future support. By the same token, a student retained through graduation is not necessarily an indicator of institutional success, if retention came at the price of a diluted educational experience or suppressed dissatisfaction that robs the school of a lifelong, mutually supportive relationship.

How to Mitigate the Effects of Student Attrition

Whatever the results of a thoughtful exercise in assessing retention significance, it is always advisable to consider what opportunities exist for mitigating the effects of student attrition. In fact, the very prospect of reducing the impact of attrition might factor into a determination of its significance. In other words, if we knew that, say, the financial impact of attrition could be offset by other revenue streams, would we be as concerned about our retention “problem?”

Perhaps the most compelling example of preventive mitigation involves enrollment policy and practice.  If the institution were to enroll only students with a high probability of persisting through graduation, that would certainly render moot much concern about retention. Mining the school’s historical data to better identify and recruit those students who display characteristics associated with satisfaction and persistence, and adopting financial aid and other enrollment practices to enhance the likelihood of their matriculation, could go a long way toward improving student fit with the school–and, as a happy byproduct, student retention.

Of course, many institutions would resist adjusting their admissions criteria in this way, especially if doing so were to conflict with key mission imperatives of promoting access and diversity. But even commitment to such laudable goals should be a conscious choice made after due consideration of how front-end enrollment policies shape subsequent retention experience. The point is not that if you knowingly admit at-risk students, you are stuck with the consequences; but rather, if you do so, you should be prepared to invest resources into providing the necessary support to such students to encourage their persistence and completion. Indeed, you have an obligation to do so.

Other Mitigation Initiatives

Short of modifying enrollment policies, however, there are other ways to offset the negative effects of student attrition.

  • Create an “upstream” remediation capability. By creating pre-college “boot camps” or special programs at feeder high schools, an institution can practice a kind of preventive mitigation that makes it unnecessary to modify enrollment policies such as alluded to above.
  • Raise funds specifically to make up for revenues lost through attrition. Institutions where the financial risk of poor retention looms large may want to launch fundraising programs specifically to cover these losses and/or seek other revenues from, for example, the use of otherwise underused campus facilities.
  • Build in an expected level of freshman-to-sophomore attrition. Some institutions purposely enroll more freshmen than they intend to serve in sophomore and subsequent years.  This sort of “overbooking” can, however, have some serious unintended consequences, such as worsening the retention problem due to the intolerably large lecture courses required in the first year in order to accommodate an oversized freshman class.
  • Institute a robust inbound-transfer program. An increasing number of schools are seeking to mitigate the impact of student attrition by adopting a proactive transfer replacement strategy that replenishes the ranks of departing students. Some offer a “guaranteed transfer” or “deferred admission” program that makes acceptance conditional upon a student’s achieving a certain first-year GPA at another college.
  • Maintain contact with those who leave. Consider instituting a proactive contact program that seeks to turn dropouts into stop-outs, eventual degree completers or adult learners down the road. Students who never graduate might nevertheless become loyal institutional supporters, if they are maintained as valued members of the school’s extended employment network.

Meta Mysteries

The need to improve student retention and completion has become something of an article of faith in American higher education, and for good reason. But for a school to simply accept this need as a given without thoughtfully examining the significance of retention at a meta level can precipitate internal contention and ineffective follow-through that, in turn, can undermine valid efforts.

Although at times counterintuitive and even a bit daring in an era of heightened institutional competition, such a meta perspective requires institutional leaders to uncouple the notion of student retention from both the constraints of place and time. A student not retained by one school might still enroll and complete elsewhere. A student who drops out today might still be a valued member of the institutional community at another time and in other ways. And, perhaps most difficult to accept, a retained student who has received something short of the education he or she deserves or who graduates dissatisfied should not be viewed proudly as a token of a successful retention effort.

Institutions need to make explicit their underlying (and sometimes conflicting) rationales in improving retention. Only then can they create a constructive space in which to develop more nuanced approaches to assessing the significance of student attrition and more creative solutions to mitigating its effects.

Lawrence Butler is senior consultant at Maguire Associates Inc., a Concord, Mass.-based consulting firm.

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