One aspect of the current crisis that I’ve not seen a lot written about is retention. Oh, there’s plenty from a hand-wringing financial perspective. Will students take a gap year? If so, will they come back? Will they move to different institutions with better online learning offerings?
What I haven’t seen a lot of yet is how to address the increased risk that traditionally successful students are more likely to drop out due to financial problems, the stress of working from home, other stresses in their lives, struggles to adapt to online education, and so on. If this list sounds familiar, it’s because students that we have thought of as “at risk” in the past—post-traditional students, including first-generation and older, working students—often face some or all of these challenges. But now, most or all students face them.
Every student should be considered an at-risk student in the current environment.
So we should be looking closely at the strategies that have been developed to address the needs of at-risk students and consider scaling them up to support every student. Particularly at higher end institutions whose populations have not been traditionally at-risk, it’s time to take a closer look at the supports you have in place for your non-traditional cohort and to learn from access-oriented colleges and universities that have been dealing with this problem at scale for a long time.
I recently ran a Standard of Proof webinar with Tyton Partners, which recently released the latest iteration of their Driving Towards a Degree study of this strategy. There’s a lot that’s of interest in their work, including their methodology, which is quite clever. But today I want to highlight one of the major findings of the study, which is that colleges that collaborate across departmental lines on their retention initiatives achieve better retention. We all understand what the phrase “falling through the cracks” means, but Tyton has actually found a way to quantify how many more students fall through the cracks when college departments let those cracks form by not working together to create a seamless experience:
Collaboration is particularly hard right now. Everybody is just trying to stay afloat. But that includes the students. Tyton was very careful not to generalize their pre-COVID study results to the current COVID situation—as they should be—but I would be money that next year’s results will be more dramatic than this year’s because the stresses on students are higher and there are more students under stress. Universities need to work harder than ever to knit their student support efforts into a coherent safety net for their students, and to anticipate many more students needing that support.