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Last modified: Thursday, August 4, 2011

Survey: Most four-year institutions of higher education work on student retention, could do more

Study by IU Project on Academic Success in collaboration with College Board and center at University of Southern California

Aug. 4, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Most four-year colleges and universities are doing something to improve student persistence and graduation rates but could devote more resources to the effort, according to a report published by the College Board Study on Student Retention and conducted by the Project on Academic Success (PAS) at Indiana University with the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice (CERPP) at the University of Southern California.

How Four-Year Colleges and Universities Organize Themselves to Promote Student Persistence: The Emerging National Picture presents findings from a groundbreaking nationwide survey. Principal investigators for the research project are Don Hossler, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the IU School of Education and executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and Jerome A. Lucido, executive director and professor of research at CERPP. The new report is now available at the website of the College Board Policy Advocacy group at

"Until now, the efforts of institutions to boost measures of student success through their policies and practices have been relatively unexamined and have remained poorly understood," said Vasti Torres, PAS director and also professor of educational leadership and policy studies. "Our new report provides a comprehensive account of what a wide range of four-year institutions are doing to address their persistence and graduation rates. This report presents survey data for comparison by institutional type as well as actionable findings that campus officials and policy makers can use in their efforts to improve student persistence and graduation rates at their institutions."

The survey revealed most institutions do make regular efforts to improve student retention. Among the findings is that most institutions surveyed reported that they regularly analyze retention rates -- the percentage of a school's undergraduate students who continue at that school the next year. Most also had an administrator charged with the responsibilities of a retention coordinator and had retention committees. The majority also had "early warning systems" to alert advisors of trouble with first-year students and also required those students to meet their advisors at least once a semester,

But the survey also revealed that institutions may not devote enough resources to retention and persistence. The retention coordinator role represented a little over one-third full-time equivalent (FTE) employee on average among the responding institutions. The retention coordinator typically has little authority or resources to implement new program initiatives.

The new publication is the project's second report on student retention, persistence and success. A previous report (also available at the College Board Policy Advocacy website), How Colleges Organize Themselves to Increase Student Persistence: Four-Year Institutions, outlined the results from the initiative's pilot study on persistence and graduation in five pilot states and provided initial indicators for comparisons across institutions.

Facing ever-increasing budgetary challenges, colleges and universities have sought to stabilize revenue streams by improving student retention on campus. More and more states are tying funding for institutions to retention and graduation rates. These same measures are key criteria in the widely followed national rankings of colleges and universities published by U.S. News & World Report.

The data for this report were taken from the College Board Study on Student Retention institutional survey and from public data available through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The survey was administered to 1,484 four-year public and private not-for-profit institutions nationwide and had a response rate of 30 percent. Survey questions focused on institutional policies and practices related to increasing student persistence. Additional data on each institution's student body and other important institutional characteristics were obtained from IPEDS and were merged with survey responses from the participating institutions.

The Project on Academic Success is now conducting a similar nationwide survey of community colleges. The Study of Community College Structures for Student Success (SCCSSS) is examining the policies and organizational structures designed to enhance student retention, transfer, and program completion at two-year institutions. This study will give a national-scale descriptive view of how community colleges organize themselves to improve key measures of student success and, like the study of four-year institutions, will provide data for comparison as well as findings that can guide the efforts of campus policy makers to improve persistence and program completion rates at their institutions.

The College Board Study on Student Retention (website at is one component of the research agenda of the Project on Academic Success (website at PAS conducts practice- and policy-oriented research on opportunity and equity in postsecondary education and on the multiple pathways of 21st-century students toward postsecondary academic success and employment. PAS is part of IU's Center for Postsecondary Research (CPR), also directed by Torres.