Insights for a Challenging Economy:
Volume 2 – Bulletin #6

Retention, Graduation Rates Top Issues For College Presidents – By Far!

Key Findings from our Leadership Retention Survey and

Five Ideas for Acting on Them

College and university leaders rate “improving student retention and graduation rates” among the “three most pressing issues” confronting their institutions, according to a Maguire Associates survey of 837 Presidents and senior Enrollment/Admissions, Financial Aid, Academics/Student Life, and Business Office leaders.  The other two most pressing issues on a list of 12 are “meeting enrollment targets” and “addressing the decline in federal/state government support.”  Indeed, presidential urgency is reflected in a stunningly higher score for retention (70%) than the second-most “pressing issue” of “meeting enrollment targets” (49%).

Officials from all five groups also believe that their institution is “genuinely committed to increasing persistence.”  These expressions of importance and commitment aside, however, only a minority of respondents (20%-41%, by group) say their institution actually has a comprehensive, written retention plan.  This suggests that while leaders understand the importance of retention and feel that they are committed to improving it, many of their institutions lack systematic, comprehensive approaches to confronting the problem. 

Not only do Presidents feel especially strongly about retention issues compared to other matters, they also rate retention highest among the top three challenges (70%) in comparison to the other leadership groups: Enrollment/Admissions (63%), Academics/Student Life (63%), Business Office (60%), and Financial Aid (59%). 

Of considerable interest, however, is the sharp perceptual difference between Presidents and members of their administrative team on the statement, “My institution is genuinely committed to increasing persistence and graduation rates within the next five years.”  While Presidents scored a strong 4.55 on a 1-to-5 agreement scale (1 = Very strongly disagree to 5 = Very strongly agree) on this statement, Enrollment/Admissions leaders scored only 3.72. 

We have no way of knowing who is “right,” but this difference reveals an important disconnect.  While these points of divergence are clearly problematic, they also provide meaningful opportunities to trigger needed, perception-shifting conversations about retention on campus and, in doing so, to embark on more systematic and systemic approaches to the subject.

Contradictions Between Espoused Commitment And Empirical Understanding?

Responses from all five groups also suggest that institutions do not know enough about either the expectations of incoming and current students or the attitudes of departing students, despite the expressions of importance in and commitment to retention:

  • When asked on the 1-to-5 agreement scale whether “My institution has a good understanding of incoming students’ priorities and expectations,” the five groups did not score particularly high: 3.63 for Presidents, 3.53 for Academic/Student Life, 3.38 for the Business Office, 3.29 for Financial Aid, and 3.24 for Enrollment/Admissions.
  • Leaders from the five groups scored even lower when asked whether “My institution has a good understanding of the characteristics and attitudes of students who discontinue their studies here.”  Presidents scored 3.19, followed by Academic/Student Life (3.17), Business Office (3.11), Enrollment/Admissions (2.86), and Financial Aid (2.82). 
  • It’s interesting to note, as well, that respondents from Enrollment/Admissions and Financial Aid generally score lower than Presidents and officials from the Business Office and Academic/Student Life on assessments of their institution’s commitment to and understanding of retention.

Is Financial Aid In The loop?

Another interesting point of divergence – and opportunity –occurs between Financial Aid executives and Presidents:

  • When asked to react to the statement that their institution “conducts annual research to assess undergraduate student satisfaction,” 71% of Presidents say this is “definitely true” while only 48% of Financial Aid officials say it is “definitely true.” 
  • Additionally, 68% of Presidents say it is “definitely true” that their institution “benchmarks our retention and graduation rates,” while only 42% of Financial Aid respondents say it is “definitely true.”
  • While these disparate results may owe, in part, to survey responses coming from many different institutions and not necessarily from the same leadership teams, the differences are big enough to suggest that there is a knowledge gap between what Presidents know (or think they know) and what their senior Financial Aid staff members know (or think they know) about their institution’s retention performance and practices.  This gap is especially worrisome given how often financial aid issues are cited by students as a reason for leaving an institution.

Retention By Committee?

Retention is a vexing problem because it does not align well with traditional organizational structures in higher education, spanning as it does almost every aspect of the institution from recruitment and enrollment to academics and student life.  Indeed, among the hottest topics in retention today is whether it should be the responsibility of one individual or department or of a working committee of officials from across the institution.  The research indicates that:

  • Presidents score highest among the five groups on the 1-to-5 agreement scale (4.49) on whether “Student satisfaction and retention is everyone’s business at my institution.”  The other group’s ratings are: Academic/Student Life (4.37), Business Office (4.35), Financial Aid (4.25), and Enrollment/Admissions (4.14).  Of course, there are those who might claim that responsibility loosely shared by everybody ultimately belongs to nobody.
  • When asked whether their institution employed a full-time administrator, part-time administrator, committee, and/or “no one” to track and improve retention, the five leader groups picked committee structures most frequently: Business Office (54%), Academic/Student Life (54%), Enrollment/Admissions (52%), Financial Aid (47%), and Presidents (46%).

Five suggestions for taking action – now!

These research findings suggest at least five areas for immediate improvement:

  1. Think and act systemically. Institutions should view retention systemically and systematically, applying sufficient talent and resources to the highest priority problems and opportunities with the greatest return that have been empirically identified.  With this mindset comes the realization that retention issues start with recruitment and enrollment and flow through to academic affairs and student life in a holistic model that demands silo-spanning solutions.

  2. Do the research. There is no excuse for failing to know (enough) about what incoming and current students want and why departing students leave.  There is a pressing need, for example, to understand whether institutional promises made in marketing materials are perceived by students as actually being delivered throughout their college experience. 

  3. Build collective knowledge. Our research suggests that key leaders across the organization have very different perceptions and knowledge levels about retention.  Colleges and universities need to ensure that their leaders share and understand their retention problems and opportunities as well as the data used to derive and prioritize them.  Having done the research, institutions must then create multiple opportunities on leadership teams and throughout the organization to discuss, prioritize, and operationalize their organizational knowledge on this subject. 

  4. Reframe the “Individual vs. Committee” Argument. Our research underscores that retention is often considered to be a collective responsibility, entrusted to a committee rather than a single administrator.  Still, we see so many institutions wrestling with this “committee vs. individual” responsibility that we wonder why the two approaches are seen as mutually exclusive.  They are not.  New organizational structures will emerge here that, for example, may vest responsibility and authority for retention in one individual or unit, supported by a committee that cuts across all key departments.

  5. Hire and reward the best talent. Ultimately, whatever the strategy or structure, success here as with just about everything else will reflect the quality of the talent assigned to the problem.  A talented individual will almost always achieve better results than a lackluster committee, and vice versa.  Strategy, structure, and resources matter greatly in today’s fast-moving, hyper-competitive world.  They pale in comparison, however, to the importance of hiring and rewarding the right person for the job.

For a summary of results from our 2010 Leadership Retention Survey, click here.

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