Monday, May 17, 2010

Some Good News on the Retention Front

I didn’t set out to do this, but I accidentally became one of the apostles of the retention movement. The year was 1975 and a dear colleague at the University of South Carolina, Paul P. Fidler, had been tasked by an interim President of the University of South Carolina to see if a controversial new course, University 101, was meeting its objectives. And I had a personal stake in this as I was its brand new, and first, faculty director, untenured too. While the course was not started to have any intentional impact on retention, this was an unexpected discovered of this administratively directed assessment process. In the mid 70’s, we had far more students coming to us or wanting to come to us than we could accommodate. We had started the course for other purposes, especially to prevent student riots by teaching new students to love the place. But there it was, a significantly higher retention rate for students who took this elective, three credit course, even though as a cohort they had lower predicted grade point averages than the non-participants, and hence we would have expected a lower retention rate. Well, this extraordinary finding, repeated year after year until we no longer had a group of non-participants large enough to measure the effect, was the impetus for the retention interest in first-year seminars. Thus, the finding was transformative, and was the engine behind a vast race to replicate this course throughout American higher education. I have just had a déjà vu experience.Since, 2003, I have been leading a project called Foundations of Excellence (FoE), through the non-profit organization which is immodestly named for me. This is a voluntary, comprehensive, assessment and action planning process to improve student learning, success and retention. It purports to do this by producing a very simple, but very rare idea for institutions: an actual plan to move them to excellence in the first year.Since 2003 we have engaged 167 colleges and universities, two and four-year, in this voluntary process. We have known of many, many outcomes from the process, and they have been described on our website at But only last week did we receive a report from an independent researcher/evaluator, Dr. Brent Drake, of Purdue University, that reported to us on what was the correlation between campuses that had participated in Foundations of Excellence and their longitudinal retention rates. We had to wait this long for this data due to two factors: 1) the lag time in institutional reporting of IPEDS data; and 2) allowing for multiple years after completion of the FoE planning process for campuses to actually implement their action plans.So, what has been found? Well, even the perennial optimist that I am was amazed by the highly significant findings. Overall, institutions that have implemented their action plans to a self reported “very high degree” have increased their retention rates an average of 5.6 points which is an 8.2% increase in retention.If you would be interested in this report on what this evaluator found in more detail, feel free to write me for a copy ( rarely can say anything very succinctly but this study confirms the following for me:1. Most campuses do not have a comprehensive plan for the first year, let alone a vision to attain excellence in their beginnings2. If a campus actually creates a plan and then actually implements that plan, it is highly probable that it will significantly increase its retention rate.3. This is an example of intentionality!-John N. Gardner

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