Retooling Our Strategies for Student Success

Submitted by Victor Ujor, ujor.1@osu.edu

Student retention at Colleges and Universities has become an important topic in the US in recent years. According to Carl Strikwerda of Inside Higher Education, the recent drop in the number of students graduating from institutions of higher learning is not because we are sending fewer students to colleges. On the contrary, this trend stems from a growing decline in the number of students who persist to graduation. Consequently, the US currently ranks as low as 19th in terms of the percentage of College graduates in the adult population. This represents a significant threat to our ability to remain competitive globally. More specifically, it represents an existential threat to some colleges and universities, and in some cases, programs within institutions of higher learning. Notably, about 25% of private Colleges in the country are currently running deficits. In fact, it is projected that a whopping 50% of colleges and universities in the US will shut down over the next decade. While this remains a projection—which we hope does not pan out exactly as predicted—truth is, it portrays a rocky road ahead for Colleges and Universities. More importantly, it calls for serious, far-reaching efforts to reverse this trend.

This begs the question; what is responsible for this trend? More importantly, what is/are the solution(s)? Whereas the situation varies from one institution to another, two factors have been repeatedly identified as major factors underlying the current retention decline in higher education, and they include:

  • Failure of students to make adequate progress toward their degree
  • Financial reasons – high cost of higher education

Whereas the financial aspect of this problem calls for far-reaching measures by institutions and government to help stop the bleeding, it is plausible to suggest that the failure of students to make progress toward their degree programs is a likely lower hanging fruit, which we as individuals can expeditiously act upon. Learning, especially in College is a multifaceted experience that transcends the classroom. Therefore, the onus falls on us as individuals at all levels in higher education to reevaluate our practices—within and without the classroom. Typically, people tend to return to a pleasant experience—be it a place, a business, or a relationship in which they felt treated abundantly well. Here at Ohio State ATI, we take great pride in providing excellent service to our students. However, considering the picture painted above, the retention scenario—which we are not immune to—calls for concerted efforts that go beyond ‘good enough’. Hence, we must seek out and embrace every conceivable opportunity to create a truly remarkable experience for every student that we encounter, be it in the classroom, the gym, the laboratory, the farm, the office, or in the hallway.

Reversing the retention trend is not an endeavor that is to be actively pursued by a select few. In contrast, it ought to be an all-out effort by every single individual within the institute to ensure that our students view ATI as home away from home, and most importantly, that they ‘visibly perceive’ honest constructive measures and efforts put in place to help them achieve their educational, and ultimately, career goals. Essentially, we all must do our bit individually to put such measures in place.  One may ask, “how do I go about this?” We all cannot be a part of administration, hence, we cannot all make decisions. However, the direct encounters that we have with students represent golden opportunities to provide impeccable service to our students. The emotional deposits that stem from such experiences far outstrip any retention-geared policies that administrators can enact.

For an open-enrollment institute such as ours, the failure of students to make adequate progress toward their degree is a likely major factor that might particularly influence the ability of our students to persist to graduation. The point then, is that we cannot deploy the same techniques and measures, as do other institutions or departments within the university, especially in regard to teaching, if we are to create an upward projectile for our retention numbers. According to Dale Carnegie, “Within every individual lies a gnawing and unfailing human hunger, and the rare individual who honestly satisfies this hunger, wields an enormous influence over them. The hunger is: the desire for a feeling of importance.” As instructors, each day presents fresh new opportunities to influence our students positively, encourage them abundantly, listen to them raptly, and most of all, seek out new ways to help them get to the next level. For each student, that next level varies significantly, ranging from understanding and applying complex principles to appreciating simple, basic concepts, some of which may not necessarily be part of the class; yet are amply fundamental to succeeding in the class.

When a student fails to ask a question in class, even though they do not understand a fundamental concept yet, it is more often than not, because they do not want to be looked down upon by their peers, who mostly may not even understand the topic either. When a student drags their feet about seeing a tutor, it is likely because they feel that their peers would notice their inadequacy. The list continues. Bottom line is, they will likely fake their way to the exit door. While they are still here, while they are still faking it, we must devise honest and sincere measures to reach out to them. That starts with a sincere and honest effort to show that we truly care, and for some of us, that we have been in similar situations in the past.

Winning their trust is not a one-off event. It is a daily endeavor, to be pursued with empathy, persistence, patience and excitement. According to Carl Strikwerda, it is instructors who mostly control students’ fate. Of course, students must do their part, nonetheless, the path that we as instructors take students on, will likely excite or discourage them, and the pendulum strongly tilts towards discouragement with open-enrollment institutions, if we are not empathic and thoughtful enough. As much as we have anticipations as to contents that we expect students to master and cover by the end of each semester, it is important to find out where our students are, before we can set sail on that journey with them. A feel of the class’ preparedness does help to hammer out some rough ends at the beginning, by retooling the content of the class to accommodate rudimentary information where possible. If students feel lost early on in class, it typically sets off alarm bells for them, and for some, the most prudent solution by their calculation is to make run for the exit door, or to passively coast through the semester, only to wind up at the same exit door in the end, either by choice or by default (expulsion due to poor academic standing).  

It is natural as instructors to nudge our students; pushing them to apply themselves more, regarding their academic endeavors. Whereas this is amply necessary, it is often easy to forget the need to lavishly recognize their efforts, when they do heed our coaxing. For a student struggling early on in a class, a short note or an email that generously recognizes and praises their efforts as they claw back their grade deficits can do a world of good to the student. To not appreciate having one’s efforts recognized, is almost if not downright unheard of. If you have children, it is very likely that your little ones would repeat a feat when they are praised/recognized genuinely for something they have done right. It is a fundamental human desire to be appreciated; one that can spark passion and effort in students. The next time a student puts in a good effort in their assignment, project, paper, or exam, spend a few minutes to leave them a short note of appreciation. It will likely kickstart a barrage of efforts going forward.

Indeed, there are many faces to the practices and efforts that can improve retention. While they are all important, success in the classroom usually engenders passion, a sense of pride in oneself, a sense of direction, and most of all, a sense of importance. With these—in addition to other factors—students are more likely to persist to graduation. Reversing the current retention trend is a continuous never-ending process; one that we all must actively participate in, one step at a time.

Bibliography

Strikwerda C. (2019) Faculty members are the key to solving the retention challenge. Inside Higher Education: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/09/04/faculty-must-play-bigger-role-student-retention-and-success-opinion (accessed 12/23/2019)

Horn M. (2018) Will half of all colleges really close in the next decade? Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhorn/2018/12/13/will-half-of-all-colleges-really-close-in-the-next-decade/#74578d5352e5 (accessed 12/23/2019)

Selingo J. J. (2018) Despite strong economy, worrying financial signs for higher education. The Washington Post:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2018/08/03/despite-strong-economy-worrying-financial-signs-for-higher-education/?noredirect=on accessed 12/23/2019)