iThink Retention: Thoughts on Data, Student Retention and Persistence

On December 7, 2015, a group of educators gathered at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss the challenges and innovative approaches to help improve institutional student retention and ultimately student success.


A tradition at TargetX since 2008, iThink was designed to bring experts and leaders in higher ed together “in the round” for important conversations with educators. If you’ve been to our events, you’ll notice we don’t isolate panelists in front of the room. Instead, we position speakers in every corner of the room (north, south, east, west) to ensure a conversation that moves around the room dedicated to critical issues in higher ed.  

Last week’s iThink event at the Campus Philly Annual Meeting, addressed a national hot-button issue: How can colleges help students graduate—and graduate on time?

College attrition is an issue that covers a universe of student stories. As much the 19-year old sophomore who can’t decide on a major as the junior whose parent suddenly loses their job. As much the overwhelmed freshman as the non-traditional adult student who struggles to balance childcare and office hours with their faculty advisor.

Here are some sobering statistics.

  • If you are at a private institution, 25% of your students will not graduate in 4 years.
  • At public institutions, only a little over half of your students will obtain a degree in 6 years.  
  • Once they graduate, 69% will have debt averaging $28,400.
  • Community colleges face similar challenges: Only 20% of students who started their degree or certificate at a two-year public institution will graduate in three years.

Consider that nationally, only 30% of colleges have a retention plan. And, of those, only 30-40% consider it a good plan.  

Not so for the panelists at the December 7th iThink meeting. All of the panelists at the iThink panel that kicked off Campus Philly’s annual meeting stressed the importance of research-based retention programs to address a wide range of student challenges at their schools.

Moore’s Five-Step Retention Program:

Claudine Thomas has over 15 years of extensive experience in developing and implementing educational support programs for both secondary and post-secondary institutions. In her current role, she oversees academic and strategic planning related to curriculum development, assessment, faculty development, and student achievement.

Last year, they conducted a comprehensive study that took into consideration high school performance, GPA, Pell eligibility, work status, resident status, major, and a number of other factors.  They also reframed the typical approach.  At the panel, Thomas talked specifically about the challenges they faced at Moore and about the retention initiatives they framed to help students better succeed.

“We shifted the question around a little from “Why do students leave?” to “What makes students stay?”  Thomas pointed out.  What did they find? Among other things, they found that students who lived on campus are more likely to stay, so they were able to build a program to help facilitate that outcome. In terms of major, students who begin school as undecided are more likely to leave. And, not surprisingly, students are more likely to stay if they have a strong connection with their faculty advisor.

“This [study] helped us put together a five-step program to help students stay. This is a long ongoing journey we are on to figure out retention.” said Claudine Thomas.

Some take-aways were particularly powerful.  “We had lots of programs for freshmen and juniors but we didn’t have anything for sophomores. We wanted to create programming around that sophomore year, so that those students are more likely to stay.”

“Risk Meets Responsivity” at Temple University

“At-risk for retention is not the same as poor academic performance.” Peter Jones, Senior Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, Temple University

With 30 years of experience at Temple University as both a professor and administrator, Dr. Peter Jones is committed to student success and retention. In his current role, Dr. Jones leads a portfolio of programs focused on student success, including the expansion of academic advising and Temple’s risk-based retention and on-time graduation initiative.

Jones, who began developing empirical risk models as a criminology professor, switched his expertise to improve retention rates at Temple University. Well-versed in risk analysis, he was quick to point out that student risk must be analyzed in a complex and multi-varied way. “Risk elements tend to be fairly idiosyncratic to the institution. They don’t travel very well.” commented Jones.

“The principle we follow at Temple is called Risk Meets Responsivity,” he continued. “You have to have an empirically valid risk instrument and then you have to identify what are the intervention needs that will address those risk factors.”

Jones emphasized the importance of tracking real-time data for the the best outcomes.  “It’s no good knowing two years after a student left why they left in their freshman year.” Jones mentioned tracking students swipe card usage from their LMS, parking lots and support centers among other places.

Such data helps campuses understand the changing nature of student risk factors over the course of their college career. Jones also stressed the importance for a less passive approach and more “aggressive student counseling” aimed at a relatively small population.

“You have to be willing to devote a lot of resources targeted at a small number of students.”  

Focus on “Proactive Advising” for the Community College of Philadelphia

“We have to reach out to students where they are with full time advisors and counselors.” Dr. Samuel Hirsch

With a long-term commitment to college access, student development and success, Dr. Hirsch is a dedicated educator who has had increasingly responsible experience in academic administration. In his current role, Dr. Hirsch is responsible for providing leadership, strategic direction, and management of academic programs and student services.

“We are at the beginning stages of a transformation at the Community College of Philadelphia,” reflected Hirsch.  “Many of our students need developmental remediation and the overwhelming majority are on financial aid so the challenges are there. We are less linear than other 4-year universities and need to help accommodate more adult and part-time learners.”

After looking at their data, for instance, CCP found that their students weren’t necessarily taking classes in sequence, so they needed to form a plan to help students find more guidance from advisors around building on their core curriculum and more proactive advising.

One audience member pointed out that for the adult learner it’s often about the day to day struggles.


What became most clear at the iThink panel is that there is no one-size fits all answer for institutions to improve retention rates. But what was crucial was to follow their specific student data, to prioritize student relationships and continue facilitating cross-campus conversations with faculty and other “touchpoints” for students.

From our perspective, iThink is ultimately about important conversations rather than final prescriptions and conclusions. After all, every year, at any given institution, things change and each school is clearly unique.

Thus the reason why schools must continue to measure and adjust, measure and adjust — and have a robust system in place to measure student success (in real-time ways that intersect with student risk in meaningful ways). The take-away is that having a system in place to measure and consolidate, and most important, act on student data is vital to the success of any institution and their students.  After all, if you learn who is in need, who you can target through research and adjustments, you can report on successful change and continue to get funding and support from others at the University to continue to improve services.

One final thought:

Much like it takes a campus to recruit a student, it takes a campus to retain one too.  We are thankful to all who came to the iThink Campus Philly to discuss pain points and share best practices.

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