Intent and Outcome for the Completion Agenda

Jul 21, 2014

When someone commits a crime, their motive or intent is frequently a factor in determining the severity of the charges brought against them. It can be difficult to truly know or understand what may be going on inside their head. When a student decides to not to continue their studies, it can also be difficult to know why. This article from Inside Higher Ed bemoans the results of recently released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and the impact this has on the completion agenda. As this article suggests, there has been little progress in increasing the persistence rate of the first time to college cohorts over the last 5 years.

But is there any way to know why? One may speculate over a number of reasons. The article suggests that an improving economy has enticed some to enter the workforce rather than study. But, frankly, data is rarely collected to help understand this phenomenon. Many institutions which have invested significant resources into the completion agenda through various retention strategies fail to fully understand the intent behind their student's activities. Some have the foresight to solicit educational goals on their application forms or during the advising process. But how helpful are predetermined and forced categorizations that may not have any bearing on the real situation behind a student's actions? It is a bit like filling out a survey after a flight and the airline proffers various questions or options to fill in to indicate your satisfaction or dissatisfaction and yet frequently they're never adequate. Usually, this is because the survey is created from the airline's point of view, not the passenger's. Similarly, how representative are the typical categories of educational goals "pursue degree," "transfer to 4 year school," "personal enrichment"?

Even if these categories/reason codes were adequate, how accurate would they be? How often do people tell the real reason behind their actions? What if they were "just dipping my toes in to see if higher education is right for me?" I have never seen that as an option for an educational goal. And yet this gets at the crux of the matter. There seems to be a pervasive idea that everyone SHOULD get a college degree and SHOULD complete. But is that really the best thing for every individual? How would you know what percentage of those not returning is because it is not the right thing for them? My niece is an example of this. She tried twice in two different fields of study in college and did not continue. In both cases, despite interest in the subject matter, she could not cope with the complications, structure, and approach of the educational environment and delivery. For her the hours of sitting and listening to someone drone on at specific times of day while being forced to read what she described as often barely relevant material then being tested for rote memorization drove her out of the system. Just finishing high school was a challenge. She fundamentally is suited to working in a hands on, experiential learning environment where she has control of the process and interaction.

Her educational goal would have started out as "Pursue degree" and quickly have changed to "get out as quickly as possible." This leads to the other side of the data collection coin. It is one where few, if any, institutions do appropriate collection and follow-up. The retention initiatives that institutions put in place rarely have a mechanism to update the student's educational goal on an ongoing basis. Worse, most students who decide not to come back do so by just disappearing. They don't go into the registrar's office or back to their advisor to explain why they are not going to register for the following semester. Yet, this is the most important data of all to understand what is happening to the 40% of students who don't come back the second year. Some schools do send follow up exit surveys, but the return rate is appallingly low and again tend to have institutionally defined categories that may not provide the useful insight to know if there is something the institution can do to retain the student. Life circumstances and other factors may just be unavoidable.

After many years implementing business intelligence and reporting systems that show retention rates for monitoring all manner of interventions and support services, we are seeing that for the vast majority of institutions nothing has changed. Our experience with our clients confirms the results in the report referenced above. In fact, when we implement our "Student Success Analytics" data warehouse solution at a new client, I can with say with certainty that the retention survival curve of the included retention analysis report will show the same slope for the last 7 years and be within a few percentage points of every other client we have implemented. It will also be within the same range as the IPEDS and other completion agenda data such as Achieving the Dream.

Some may say, "Well what's the point of even tracking this metric?" You need to continue to monitor this metric, because it is the gauge currently being used to measure success. Once the automation is in place to measure, time needs to be spent on developing new strategies and techniques to "move the needle" by retaining more students. More importantly, analyzing the data using predictive models can identify which students will most likely benefit from interventions and ensure that they are a priority.

Perhaps, focusing strictly on the retention rate is not the answer. I see more opportunity in the approaches of the more forward thinking institutions we work with. Some have been at this completion agenda a long time. In most cases they have seen little progress despite all their efforts! They are stepping back and using their data to find out "who already has completed the requirements for a degree but hasn't requested one." Surprisingly, especially in community colleges, this is not uncommon. They are removing barriers to acquiring a degree by removing the overhead and fees involved. Going further, they are looking at students who have dropped out, but are within a semester or two of completion and individually following up with each to understand the specific circumstances that have prevented continuation so they can create a degree plan for them to be successful.

What are you doing to better understand why students leave your institution?