President Obama told a joint session of Congress in February 2009 that, “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” More than four years after the President’s hopeful forecast, improving retention and graduation remain key objectives of federal and state education policy aimed at reaching this goal.

Undergraduate retention is a complex issue, representing an interplay of societal, institutional and personal factors with significant costs and implications in all three domains. For society, higher education is a critical mechanism for socioeconomic advancement and an important driver of economic mobility. For the individual, not completing an undergraduate degree leads to lower income and higher unemployment, among other consequences.

For institutions, retention is a crucial economic and reputational issue. In the current higher education fiscal environment, most institutions cannot afford to lose students—and their associated tuition revenues. Retention initiatives designed to manage student enrollment are estimated to be 3-5 times more cost effective than recruitment efforts, i.e., it takes 3-5 times as much money to recruit a new student as it does to retain one already enrolled (Crusoe, 2007).

Even though college and university leaders recognize the complex nature of student retention, many still do not fully embrace data-driven, best practice approaches. Only through information and commitment can institutions develop enduring programs to enhance retention results.

We see considerable value in structuring student retention efforts along multiple dimensions, each having the potential to improve performance. Through our research we have identified four of these retention dimensions. Although institutions vary in their ability and willingness to pursue a particular approach, a college will have the best results by bringing them all into play together:

  1. Focus on accountability: Retention is a broad institutional concern. It is so broad that a process, which should be owned by everyone, is often actually owned by no one. Countering this organizational paradox requires establishing clear accountability. Whether with a senior official or campus-wide office, the buck must stop somewhere to produce consistency across diverse functions. Student success leaders should marshal accepted retention metrics to their cause and use them to sharpen focus and raise general awareness.
  2. Intervene to help at-risk students: While holding on to students improves an institution’s standing and finances, colleges have a higher moral imperative: to address the social and academic needs of those they admit. These efforts require both human and financial resources. Recent initiatives, such as The City University of New York’s ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs) program, show that institutional commitment coupled with modest investments can make a big difference in student retention and graduation.
  3. Become more student focused: At each point in the enrollment pipeline, institutions face greater scrutiny by today’s students and families. Gone are the days where students accepted substandard housing or poor dining as character building. The panoply of administrative and academic support services needs taming to engage today’s consumer-oriented students and parents. Colleges should strive to provide as much post-enrollment attention as they do in recruitment.
  4. Make better initial matches: Colleges should make better use of profile data to identify and recruit “best-fit” students. Cohort survival analysis can sharpen admission and financial aid decisions to provide a more integrated approach to enrollment management. Inevitably, some students will be a poor fit, but focused efforts to maximize good matches will make scholarship support more effective and gradually improve student persistence. Short-term consequences might include a somewhat smaller freshman class, ideally offset by a somewhat larger sophomore cohort.

Colleges and universities should incorporate their retention and graduation efforts into long-term strategic planning. Each institution stands in a somewhat different position, depending on mission, resources and history. The plan for each should reflect this variation; leadership needs to measure performance not against an abstract standard but against its own goals. Implementing and integrating the four prescriptions offered above represents a very good start.

For advice on how our data-driven approaches might help, please call 978-371-1775 or visit