Paul Brown, M.Ed, VP of Sales, West

Innovations for Improving U.S. College Retention

“Most crisis situations are opportunities to either advance, or stay where you are.”
Maxwell Maltz

While famous author and surgeon Maxwell Maltz may not have been talking specifically about colleges when he wrote this line 50 years ago, many U.S. colleges and universities are heeding his words in order to stay alive and relevant in the 21st century.

Over the past decade, the traditional landscape of higher education has been affected by trends ranging from the economy and increasing English Language Learner rates to digital newcomers like online courses (MOOCs) and electronic media. Students today may complete a degree program without ever visiting the college’s campus. However, the largest economic crisis affecting most colleges is that 3 out of 10 freshmen drop out of school before their sophomore year. The main reasons for dropping out are cost, life balance, lack of time, and ability.

When retention is good, students are the big winners, as the average college graduate makes 84% more than a student with only a high school degree. Our national economy also benefits as the average college dropout makes less than $35,000 annually, while the average person with a bachelor’s degree makes over $50,000 annually.

The dramatic impact drop-outs have had on the higher education system has led to campus-wide retention initiatives at many 4-year institutions and community colleges. These schools are adopting innovative practices and resources to help students succeed independently and make it past the “freshman hump”. Community colleges especially have seen the need for better supports such as shared transportation and on-site childcare.

Studies have also shown that increasing a student’s GPA, particularly in their first year of college, increases the likelihood of that student staying in college (Ishitani and DesJardins, 2002).  ACT assessment scores and non-academic factors such as confidence and social support have also shown a positive relationship to retention (Lotwowski, Robbins and Noeth, 2004). Some resources that have been offered to improve academic performance include revamped support centers, student mentoring programs, and literacy and study support software such as Texthelp’s Read&Write. Some schools have also developed more complicated multi-departmental coalitions combining efforts from departments such as Disability Services, TRiO programs, Veterans Services, IT, International Education, and Athletics. 

When programs like these succeed, colleges benefit as well. In a 2013 study from the Education Policy Institute, the average U.S. college loses almost $10 million in tuition annually through attrition. Improvements to the institution’s graduation rate can boost the overall financial health of the college as well, giving them the opportunity to better serve students.

The national retention crisis is far from over, but adopting innovative policies that adapt to the evolving educational landscape is proving to be a smart choice for colleges and universities looking to stay alive and advance.


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