Student Retention: Faculty Taking on a Bigger Role

Retention is a very important issue in higher education right now. It is not difficult to understand why, when you look at the budget constraints most postsecondary schools are currently facing.

The sobering fact is that less than sixty percent of the students entering four-year colleges in America today are graduating within six years. (Bowen, Chingos, & McPherson, 2009.) Minority students and those from poor families have an especially difficult time reaching the graduation milestone.

Historically, faculty members have not been expected to play a major role in retaining students. Their role, instead, was to “sort” students by assigning them grades based on their performance. The common view, for quite a long time, was that “students have a right to fail.” Many institutions did not even bother keeping track of the number of dropouts from their institutions or programs. In times of plentiful students and budget surpluses, this laissez-faire approach was tenable. This view is changing, rapidly, under the current conditions.

The new thinking is that institutions have a responsibility to promote and support student learning and that they should measure their success as institutions based upon how well their students learned. Certainly, students have a great deal of responsibility for their own success, but so does the institution and, by implication, the faculty members.

The shift from “teaching” to “learning,” then, is really a shift away from measuring the success of a college or university based upon resources and processes to measuring success based upon outcomes. These imperatives are behind the current drive to collect student success data and to help faculty and staff develop strategies to raise success rates. In short, institutions are turning to their faculties for help in improving upon dismal retention numbers.

Retention is not only a growing expectation and imperative, but it is also an opportunity for faculty members to take the lead in innovating, researching, and implementing new strategies while demonstrating their effectiveness. This is both a challenge and a huge opportunity for college professors to take the lead in re-creating the college learning experience in ways that are more supportive and effective.

Faculty members are on the front-line of meeting the increasingly important retention imperative. Instructors interact with students frequently and are likely to be among the first to notice signs that a student is disengaging from college and at-risk of dropping out. By learning to recognize the warning signs and taking informed intervention action, a faculty member can play a key role in changing the course of a student’s life for the better. This is an exciting opportunity and a big responsibility, but future generations depend on our willingness to rise to the challenge.

Bowen,William, Chingos, Matthew, & McPherson, Michael. (2009.) Crossing the Finish Line:
Completing College at America’s Public Universities. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.