Improving College Student Retention and Success
With approximately 33,000 full time students across four urban campuses in Toronto, student retention at George Brown College (GBC) has historically been the primary responsibility of each of the college’s seven academic divisions. Arising from internal and external pressures to improve student retention, the college resourced a series of projects and initiatives to increase the annual retention rate by 5% between 2013 and 2018. In spite of best intended efforts, the approach did not result in the desired outcome. In fact, the rate slightly declined. This resulted in significant organizational restructuring across the college and motivated a sharpened strategic focus on student success.
This paper’s author has since been tasked with primary leadership for this strategic renewal, with a mandate to improve student retention and success metrics across the college – a mandate that forms the Problem of Practice under investigation.
Analyzing the Challenge of Student Retention
Research from the GBC Student Characteristics Survey (2016) shows that an average of 88% of new students expect that they will continue with their studies at the college in their second semester. However, the Year 1 to Year 2 retention rate is only 67%. So, while students expect to be successful, and 95% are determined to complete their college education (George Brown College, 2016), something happens once they enroll that significantly impacts their student experience. The factors that negatively impact student retention cannot go unexamined, as 33% of students leave their program of study after first year. In order to fully understand the complexity of the situation, it is important to consider three specific influences on how colleges approach student success: public policy, student readiness and institutional context.
Since the mid-1990s, public policy has significantly impacted post-secondary education in Ontario. Following a series of deep budget cuts to post-secondary education, the Conservative government implemented a performance-based funding. This more tightly coupled public socio-economic priorities with college performance, with mandatory institution-level outcomes used as indicators of productivity and quality. Commonly known as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), these publicly reported outcomes annually measure a common set of metrics as indicators of post-secondary education quality. Among these KPIs are measures of student, graduate, and employer satisfaction, in addition to student retention, graduation and employment rates. Reporting these metrics facilitated public transparency, and further marketized post-secondary education through internal sector competition for consumer (student) choice.
Following a 2004 report of review of post-secondary education, the Liberal government continued to bind colleges to public policy through requirements to mutually negotiate strategic mandate agreements, increase inter-institutional program articulation, coordinate and align sector planning, diversify credential offerings, and freeze institution-level tuition increases. Positioned as post-secondary access strategies, these policy mandates subsequently reproduced the self-regulating educational marketplace as cemented by the previous government. The actions of both governments, even with misaligned policy stances on post-secondary education, essentially pinned colleges against one another in an attempt to respond to increased expectations for student choice in a self-regulating market.
While prior academic achievement is commonly acknowledged as the strongest predictor of educational attainment in college (Astin, 1993), having the requisite knowledge and skills for academic success in college is equally significant in student retention (Tinto, 2012). The literature also points to a consistent relationship between year to year academic achievement and persistence to graduation (Kirby & Sharpe, 2001; Ryland, Riordan & Brack, 1994). This reinforces the commonly accepted premise that students who have high academic performance prior to entering college are more likely to have high academic performance while in college — and they are more likely to graduate than those with lower performance.
However, retention research shows that withdrawal due to academic failure represents only 14-25% of all attrition (Tinto, 2012). Limitations of academic achievement research that student social location and identity (e.g. race, gender, (dis)ability, Indigenous status, ethnicity) present a set of additional variables that influence college success (Cox & Strange, 2016). For example, research shows how implicit structural, attitudinal, and cultural barriers in society and school systems predispose African-American men to not be as successful in college as other students (Cuyjet, 2006). Parallel findings are not uncommon in research on students from other diverse identities.
Furthermore, research associated with the transition to college resulted in the broad acceptance of this transition as being a stressful and complex time in the life of a young person, with numerous psychosocial and health-related behaviours (e.g. smoking, drinking, social supports) having a correlation to student retention (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; DeBerard, Spielmans & Julka, 2004). This becomes more complex for diverse students, for whom dimensions of social location and identity can limit social capital — a series of “instrumental, productive relationships or networks that provide access to opportunity or lead to advantageous outcomes” (Strayhorn, 2010, p. 309) in a successful transition to college.
Arguably, a student’s likelihood of success results from the interplay of variables that are within their immediate influence (e.g. time on task, academic skill, motivation), and social context variables (e.g. race, gender) that are outside of their control and predispose their potential success in college. To attempt to control for this interplay college-wide would be futile; and the resources required to address the individualized needs of students would be restrictive.
Retention research on early leavers in Ontario colleges (Lopez-Rabson & McCloy, 2013) emphasizes the importance of program fit, career clarity, and the associated configuration of advising systems and supports as significant drivers in a student’s likelihood to persist. Additional research on institutional context (Seifert et al, 2013; Kuh et al, 2005; Strange & Banning, 2001), underscores the importance of organizational culture, configuration of student support services, and the design of the built environment as variables in creating success-promoting conditions. Furthermore, research on exemplary educational practices (Kuh et al., 2005) emphasizes that shared responsibility for student success across all aspects of the organizational structure helps to shape the conditions in which students may succeed. Such dimensions include but are not limited to: enrollment mix, curricula, faculty development, technology, policy, and built environment.
Reflecting on the GBC Retention Project
In a 2018 internal report of the previous five years’ student retention initiatives at the college, a number of gaps arose from what was intended to be an institution-wide improvement project. These gaps signal misalignments and lack of coordination in the institutional context that mitigated the project’s potential success, including:
- The absence of a shared conceptual framework of theory, principles and values resulted in no coordination across divisions and departments to program and assess scalable interventions that could have broad impact.
- Little clarity in intervention scope and focus generated over 275 divergent retention initiatives, with little consistency across divisions and departments.
- Few resources dedicated to systematic evaluation limited collective capacity to measure outcomes and resulted in a singular focus on the retention rate. Deans reported that success is about more than just retention, and that a more diverse data narrative is needed.
- A lack of communication and coordination across divisions and departments among individuals doing retention work, and those leading retention work, resulted in a disarray of initiatives.
- System and policy obstacles arose from administrative areas who were not initial project stakeholders, limiting access to information and other support resources.
Given these institutional context variables, McNair et al. (2016) suggest that in order to focus on institutional context variables, and become a ‘student-ready college’, a cultural shift is needed — one that challenges historical values and ideologies and reflects “a holistic approach to the campus as an ecosystem… working with principles and concepts of distributed and developmental leadership for a healthy and flourishing organizational culture” (p. 32). Their proposition is not easy in a decentralized context. Lumby (2012) argues that absent a clear definition, organizational culture “cannot be controlled, [but it] can be influenced to some degree and that deciding on the direction of influence is a key moral challenge for leaders” (p. 586). Furthermore, she proposes that “a strong organizational culture is beneficial because it embeds values” (p. 585) that are particular to the organization in question. So, given the moral imperative of colleges to help students succeed, a potential leadership approach to the problem of practice is one that allows for the examination of the multi-variable interplay that shapes culture, and that focuses on shared leadership for student success across the college.
A New Approach: Distributed Leadership
Traditional styles of leadership and management have been problematized in the study of leadership in higher education. Busch (2017) argues that traditional approaches signal increased managerialism, in response to neoliberal policy through attempts to govern “intellectual production [through] a larger, more coercive apparatus” (p. 36). These approaches also pose concerns for academic work, which is characterized by “a deep commitment to scholarship… the opportunity for intellectually stimulating work, a genuine passion for the field of study and the opportunity to contribute to new knowledge” (as cited in Jones, Harvey, Lefoe and Ryland, 2014). This tension between new managerialism and the heart of academic reinforces Peter Gronn’s position that higher education leadership is “a complex, multifaceted [process] that must focus on the development of individuals as well as the organisational [sic] contexts in which they are called to operate” (as cited in Jones et al., 2014, p. 204).
Gronn’s early work on distributed leadership emphasized the intentional interplay between various contextual factors to produce a holistic perspective of an organization’s work — resulting in the creation of an activity system that shapes outcomes (Jones et. al, 2014). Hargreaves and Fink (2008) proposed that this interplay generates a living system where distributed leadership is not a singular responsibility, but is instead the activity of communities of practice and networks. In considering the challenge at GBC, where the work relating to student retention and success is broadly decentralized, unfocused and uncoordinated, communities and networks as sites of collective action and shared leadership merit exploration.
Highlighting the work of Phillip Woods and his collaborators, Jones et al. (2014) underscore the importance of ‘concertive action’, ‘movable boundaries’ and ‘expertise’ as being elemental underpinnings to a distributed leadership approach. Concertive action requires networks of individuals to collect and aggregate work and knowledge in joint activity. Meanwhile, movable boundaries extend leadership beyond traditional siloes of rank, resulting in a more encompassing scope of expertise focused on the activity in question (Jones et al., 2014). Beyond these underpinnings, Woods and his collaborators emphasize five elements of distributed leadership, which could arguably frame values for organizational change: “a context of trust, a culture of respect for expertise, a process of change and development that involves many levels of engagement in collaborative activity and an agreed process to resolve conflict” (as cited in Jones et al, 2014, p. 606). These are critical elements for GBC to consider as it undertakes to better coordinate and focus the existing territoriality of student retention work, to build integrated strategy and accountability for student success.
Hargreaves and Fink (2008) articulate challenging questions in taking a distributed leadership approach, poignant for this problem of practice:
What kind of distributed leadership do we want, and what educational and social purposes will it serve? Are such forms of leadership merely more subtle and clever ways to deliver standardized packages of government reforms and performance targets?… Or [can it be] a key principle in a coherent and inclusive democratic consensus that joins the entire community in the pursuit of a compelling social vision? (238-239)
In this case then, is the change project an attempt to merely improve Key Performance Indicators, which reproduces an already problematic focus on the retention rate? Or is this an opportunity to shift from a reliance on the metric as the singular indicator towards a more holistic view of student success?
As the individual who holds structural leadership for student success at GBC, the author has the opportunity to consider how to deconstruct previously siloed approaches to the work and mobilize an active community of leaders towards a compelling vision of student success. That said, should the democratic coordination of resources (e.g. people, finances, knowledge) as managerial efficiency drive cultural change? Or will the academic deans elevate a moral imperative of student learning that dissipates siloes of power, authority and control, fostering a collective shift towards collective impact?
Using a similar approach as that described by Jones et al (2014) the author could assemble a concertive project team to engage in further analysis o and map the analysis findings against Woods’ three elemental underpinnings. The team would include individuals engaged in ground-level work relating to retention and success — beyond the movable boundaries of historical structures and authority. The project team would develop a scoping document for the new retention and success strategy, leveraging shared college-wide expertise, which would then be presented to the college’s management team for validation and endorsement.
For Further Reflection
Gronn’s (2010) description of distributed leadership signals a significant area of further analysis in this problem of practice:
Distributed leadership is not really a type of leadership at all… the term describes a situation…where the totality of organisational [sic] influence is not concentrated in or monopolized by just one person, but instead dispersed or shared around, so that there are a number of sources of influence, initiative-taking or forward thinking. (p. 417)
However, the author was appointed and mandated as that ‘one person’ who is expected to drive change and produce improved outcomes. That said, leadership challenges ahead for further reflection and analysis include:
- how to establish collective capacity towards a higher order (moral imperative) motivation for change in a climate where managerial efficiencies are rewarded;
- how to build momentum around the historical retention work, and leverage promising practices that can be potential sites of scalability and innovation;
- how to shift focus from himself as ‘the structural leader’ to networks and communities of experts as a “leadership configuration” (Gronn, 2010, p.424);
- how to establish a longer line of sight for outcomes and accountability in an environment where results are expected to be immediate.
In undertaking the next wave of analysis, it will be vitally important to remember that the leadership proposition for this extensive and significant change at GBC is “not about doing… it’s about creating a context for others to do.” (Gronn, 2010, p. 424).
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