March 18, 2018

Does Retention Matter in Alt-Higher Ed? | From the Bell Tower

Retention, or demonstrating the connection between it and library use, is central to the library value proposition—or we’d like it to be. Research on retention may help us figure out how to best demonstrate that connection—but in a drastically altered higher ed landscape, it may matter far less.

Improving retention rates in higher education is an important goal for a majority of colleges and universities. Ideally, our institutions would demonstrate high percentages of students continuing into the sophomore year and then persisting to graduation. Retention is also emerging as a factor for academic librarians who want to demonstrate their institutional value. More of us are looking for ways to demonstrate that the library or librarians contribute to retention. To accomplish that, we are increasingly crunching the data for any signs of library use—borrowing books, using library databases, coming into the library—that can be connected to academic success (high grades, graduation, etc.).

But what if retention mattered far less because the way students got to graduation no longer depended on staying at one institution? What if moving from one higher ed option to another actually improved the odds of persisting to graduation? The reality is that in a new higher education landscape, no one will care as much about retention, as long as students get a diploma one way or another in a reasonable amount of time.

Just graduate ‘em

While retention is good, graduation is better. At least, that the conclusion of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, a group of college presidents convened by six higher education associations at the behest of the Obama administration to examine what individual institutions can do to improve college completion. The Commission issued an open letter to higher education leaders that had one dominant message: college completion must be our priority. College presidents were urged to do all they can to help increase the nation’s graduation rates—not just increase retention. You might say it’s necessary to retain a student in order for him or her to graduate. That is increasingly not necessary. In the world of unbundled higher education, the options for getting to graduation are expanding.

Here’s what I mean. In the traditional higher education path, directly below, a student would start and finish at the same institution—if he or she was retained and persisted to graduation. That was often the case, and if they stayed on this linear track in four or five years, they graduated.

bundled Higher Ed straight line chart

What’s changed is that higher education is unbundling. It’s no longer necessary, or possibly even desirable, if a student wants to maximize their tuition dollars, to stay on a linear path at a single institution. In the version of higher education pictured below, an at-risk student who is the target of most retention efforts has many more options that could help him or her achieve the holy grail of graduation.

unbundled Higher Ed jagged chart, including online, MOOC, community college, reverse transferIn this new Alt-Higher Ed model, it’s less clear that any one of the possible providers of higher education would retain a student for long. In anticipation of the change, and the growing interest in tying state higher education funding to graduation rates, perhaps retention becomes less important than getting credit for graduating a student, no matter where they earned credits along the way—quite possibly with the graduating institution’s blessing. The new mantra of many institutions might be “Just graduate ‘em.” If you can retain them, that’s even better, but if not, do what is necessary to guide students to graduation by finding a better option.

But for now…

While it’s interesting to consider whether retention will still matter in Alt-Higher Ed, the near-term likelihood is that the pressure to retain students for as long as possible will continue. Colleges and universities still see a retained student as a payoff on their admissions investment, and higher retention means higher rankings—and that still matters a great deal. In a column titled “Research to Improve Retention,” Robert J. Sternberg shares 12 research-validated risk factors that most contribute to retention failure. The number one reason is academic incompatibility. Put simply, students enroll at an institution or in a major for which they are completely unprepared to succeed. If institutions improve their ability to match students with a major in which they can succeed, it would immediately increase retention. Looking at all 12, it’s hard to say exactly where an academic library would provide support to help retain students, but there are some opportunities. Most of what librarians are doing would best address problem four, helping students succeed with assignments so that they develop self-efficacy and resilience. Librarians might even be able to make the case, once the data is crunched, that checking out books, consultations with librarians, clicking on database articles, and other library-related learning and scholarly activity may actually help students achieve the self-efficacy that leads to academic persistence.

When retention no longer matters

I foresee a time when retention will matter far less than it does now for any single institution, if there is a fundamental shift to just getting diplomas in their hands. As higher education’s evolution moves increasingly in the direction of Alt-Higher Ed, where students move fluidly between colleges and universities, both physical and online as well as non-profit and for-profit—and everything in between no cost and high cost—the concept of retention may be drastically altered. The institutions that succeed at retaining students will evolve by creating an educational eco-system that can enroll students where they are best matched to the type and level of higher education that moves them through the system, delivering the form of higher education that provides the learning and support—at the right cost—that keeps students from failing out. It could be done in partnerships that bring together a multitude of players all with one collective goal—to keep the student within a single eco-system—as opposed to a single institution—that gets him or her to graduation.

Academic librarians are already contemplating how their services and collections fit into such a system. Last week on a discussion list for academic librarians, a similar question was raised about our collective response to change in higher education, particularly MOOCs. There were many questions and much speculation, but no real answers. Let’s just hope there is no opportunistic entrepreneur seeking funding for a solution that academic librarians are challenged even to identify. For now, with most of our colleges and universities still working to unravel the solution to the retention problem, Sternberg’s list of twelve recommendations for boosting retention makes perfect sense and are worthy of our attention. But if Alt-Higher Ed becomes more the norm than an experiment, we will ask if retention—in the traditional sense—much matters anymore.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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