Student retention

Joe Cuseo

Student Retention; Student Learning: A Symbiotic and Synergistic Relationship

Student retention is an outcome (and a very assessable outcome) that makes all other learning outcomes of a college education possible, i.e., the outcomes of the college education cannot be meaningfully assessed unless students are around at graduation to have their learning outcomes measured. It could be said that assessment of student learning outcomes at institutions with low graduation rates is to conduct assessment on an unrepresentative sample of students because it fails to include the substantial number of students who enrolled and didn’t persist. (It could be likened to conducting outcome assessment of the effectiveness of a drug on surviving patients, while ignoring the patients who died along due to the drug’s unintended side effects.)

Research indicates that practices, procedures, and programs that effectively promote student persistence to graduation are also likely to promote student learning (academic achievement), higher-level thinking, and positive attitudinal change (e.g., attitude toward diversity). Three retention-promoting principles, in particular, appear to me to be the most conceptually compelling and empirically well supported are (1) active involvement/engagement (Astin, 1993), (2) social integration (Tinto 1993), and personal significance/“mattering” (Schlossberg, Lynch, Chickering, 1989). Respectively, these three principles postulate that any institutional policy, procedure, or practice which promotes students’ (a) active involvement, (b) social integration, and (c) personal significance will likely promote their retention. Conversely, any institutional policy, procedure, or practice that leads students to experience passivity (disengagement), social isolation, or depersonalization (marginality or insignificance) will likely promote their attrition.

Serendipitously, these three retention-promoting principles are also essential elements of effective learning (academic achievement)—i.e., learning is enhanced when students are actively engaged in the learning process (McKeachie et al., 1986), when they interact with others to “socially construct” knowledge (Bruffee, 1993), and when they find personal significance (meaning) in what they are learning (Weinstein & Meyer, 1991). Thus, institutional interventions designed to promote student retention may be expected to simultaneously promote student learning. This supports the common contention among retention scholars that, “successful retention is nothing more than successful education.”

Thus, the good news is that institutional interventions designed to promote student retention (persistence to graduation) should simultaneously serve to promote student learning and personal development. This symbiotic or synergistic relationship between student learning and student retention supports an oft-cited aphorism of retention scholars: “Successful retention is nothing more than successful education.”


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Weinstein, C. F., & Meyer, D. K. (1991). Cognitive learning strategies. In R. J. Menges

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