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Professional Opinion

What college freshman retention rates miss when measuring student success

Hitting retention goals means little when students don’t succeed
University Business, January 2018
Brandon Stokes is director of retention and student success at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Brandon Stokes is director of retention and student success at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

When the national averages for freshman retention rates at public schools sits around 64 percent and private schools hover around 70 percent, there’s clearly room for improvement in ensuring students return to campus the following fall.

Of course, students and parents seem especially clued in to retention rates, as no one wants to get settled into a dorm only to leave the school within a year. But we must also be careful to not be short-sighted and cater too heavily toward a singular statistic to the detriment of students and the institution.

Not disheartened

Last semester, Meredith College implemented a new academic-standing policy that initially put us at a disadvantage in our goal to reach an 80 percent first-year retention rate. We came up just short—79.9 percent returned to campus this fall—but we were not disheartened in the least.

Those who did not return were students who previously would have been readmitted, but instead were suspended after poor academic performance. Readmitting them would not have done these students any favors.

Rather than bring them back for another semester or two of accruing student loans without appreciable academic success, the more ethical thing was to identify their struggles earlier, provide them with additional support, and recognize when the situation was still not working as planned.

It was obvious the status quo should be changed regarding our academic standards. In looking for alternatives, we found a model in a tremendous program from Brigham Young University. While we can’t take the credit as innovators outright, the change is already producing noticeable results.

A new policy

Conventional wisdom suggests that if we make academics more rigorous, more students will struggle to meet the cutoffs. But we can simultaneously implement policies designed to reduce or eliminate the possibility of a student slipping through the cracks.

Under the old policy, freshmen were technically allowed to remain in good academic standing despite having a GPA that would put them behind pace to graduate on time. Like many institutions, Meredith allowed two consecutive semesters of academic probation before finally resorting to suspension.

While this might have seemed merciful, this practice neither provided timely intervention for those not making progress nor rewarded those who were.

Under our new academic probation policy, students must show growth and progress. GPAs are monitored semester by semester. This prevents unduly flagging students who may have initially excelled but struggled in subsequent years.

Students who don’t make the cutoff receive an academic alert notifying them of the gravity of the situation. They also receive recommendations to repeat courses when necessary and reminders of support services, such as tutoring and academic advising.

The result is fewer students spending time on academic probation, despite facing more rigorous benchmarks.

Pointless metric

The bottom line is the suspended students likely would have left the institution eventually because they were not on track to graduate. Now we’re better at identifying the situation and addressing it quickly, instead of letting it drag on.

While freshman retention figures may have lagged slightly, we’re confident that second-year retention and graduation rates will increase and make up that difference.

Hitting and exceeding our retention goals would have been nice. But it’s a pointless metric if we’re not strengthening our academic rigor and doing what’s best for our students.   


Brandon Stokes is director of retention and student success at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.