Saturday, March 19, 2011

Can the curriculum lead to retention and graduation?

This article in Campus Technology highlights the efforts of California Lutheran University to retain more of its students.  The university is rightly proud of its efforts, which have increased retention five percent in the past five years.

Their approach should be familiar to anyone who has worked on retention in the past decade--a mix of one-on-one outreach to students, strong support in the co-curriculum, a focus on students at-risk, and a robust data effort to ensure that no one falls through the cracks and to verify assumptions about what works and what doesn't.  I expect that a similar mix, deployed with more or less effectiveness, exists on any campus that has worked to improve retention.  Where there is variation, it comes in implementation and student characteristics, not in approach.

I suspect that this approach, though, has just about reached the limits of its effectiveness.  Here are a few reasons:
1. The focus in higher ed is shifting from retention to graduation.  The Gates Foundation, the federal government, and the various states are now pushing an obvious point--that one major goal of education is to graduate from college.  Most retention efforts, on the other hand, focus on first-to-second year persistence.  And while there have been moves towards sophomore year experiences and other extensions of the retention model, most individual components of retention efforts can succeed without moving the overall graduation rate one bit.

2. Retention efforts fail to engage large portions of the campus community.  By this I mean two things: first, that most students are not the focus of retention .  Upper-division students don't usually get considered.  Nor do students in the broad middle--those who are doing well.  Second, retention work fails to engage most faculty.  Certainly those who teach freshman seminars or learning communities classes play a role.  And so do faculty leaders--deans, honors program directors, freshman advisors, etc.  But unless yours is an unusual campus, the number of faculty for whom retention is another nice program (or something to be offered up for budget cuts in difficult times) is large.

3. Retention efforts do not influence the curriculum as a whole.  Retention work has influenced key segments of the curriculum.  First-year seminars often exist to help retain students.  So do learning communities.  And at the outer edge, some campuses have redesigned their General Education programs to focus, in part, on retention.  But few majors have been redesigned to retain students.  And in fact, the trend towards requiring more hours in the major may work against retention.

So the question--what can be done in the curriculum to both retain more students and get more of them to graduation?

A few thoughts:

1. Hold departments responsible for retaining and graduating declared majors.  Again, if your campus is anything like the norm, department chairs and deans cannot tell you which majors retain declared students.  Nor is there any attention to the data showing what movement from one major to another looks like.

2. Make sure there are enough sections of upper-division classes so that retained students can move through expeditiously.

3. Enrich the portion of the curriculum that sits at the transition from GE to the major.  Too often the first class in the major is also a large service course for the institution.  Or students come to it willy-nilly, some in their first semester in the major, others after exploring upper-division courses

4. Ensure that there is a narrative to the curriculum--a reason that one course follows another, a story that all students and faculty can tell that describes why they are where they are in their course of study, and why the next step makes sense.

I am sure there are many more ways that the curriculum (here I am distinguishing from pedagogy) can lead to retention and graduation.  But whatever they are, certainly institutions must be moving in that direction.  Retention is no longer enough.

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