Facing Facts: Student Persistence

The study of higher education is professionalizing. Theories are maturing, research is expanding, and we are steadily learning more about what works, and what doesn’t, when people head off to college. The results are sobering. Knowledge can empower – and also humble.

Wesley R. Habley, Jennifer L. Bloom, and Steve Robbins recently collaborated on Increasing Persistence: Research-Based Strategies for College Student Success. Billed as a “compendium on college student persistence that bridges the gaps between theory, research, and successful practice,” the book has three main components: an overview of history and theory, deeper analysis of research on student success, and a suggested blueprint for institutions of higher education. It is a tremendously valuable resource and a wake-up call to higher education.

Increasing PersistenceThe authors’ pedigrees are impressive. Habley is an ACT principal associate, has an EdD from Illinois State University, and a much-published scholar on higher educational administration. Bloom holds an EdD  from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is a clinical professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of South Carolina. She was president of NACADA (National Academic Advising Association) and is an active scholar. Robbins is a nationally known scholar and a principal research scientist at ACT. Earlier in his career Robbins was chair and professor of psychology at VCU. Collectively, the authors are well-positioned to summarize the current state of research on student success in the United States.

The bad news takes your breath away. There has been tremendous effort and energy expanding on understanding and improving student persistence and graduation rates. The authors believe that it is the most studied question in higher education. Research is voluminous, ever-expanding, and not unanimous – just as one would expect in a dynamic field. The overall body of knowledge, though, is steadily improving. The real life-results, however, are not:

In spite of all that is known, there has been little change in retention and degree completion rates in more than four decades. Nearly one-third of all first-year students do not return for a second year, fewer than half of all first-year students who earn a bachelors degree do so within five years of all high school graduation, and approximately 40% of all students who enter higher education in a given fall will not earn a degree anywhere at any time in their lives.

In sum, higher education has failed to improve rates of student success.

The question of why overall student success in the United States has not improved in the last forty years hangs over the book the like a dark cloud. It is an issue that all in higher education have to address – and there are no easy answers. I have seen, studied, and contributed to efforts that have improved student success at individual colleges. But collectively we are not anywhere near as effective as we need to be.

The authors argue that all of efforts of the past few are the necessary precursors to improvement. They argue that if retention is refocused on student success, that if institutions coöperate and collaborate, and if resources are reallocated on student persistence, the needle can move. It is an issue that is of tremendous importance to our nation’s future, and the authors spell out the challenge and its costs and benefits. They also prove the value of focusing on student success at the college level.

What does the research tell us? There is no one right answer or way to improve student success. Student persistence at the macro-level rests on three characteristics: academic preparation, psychosocial characteristics, and career development. The interplay of these factors can explain whether or not certain types of students succeed at particular kinds of institutions with specific kinds of career goals.

The interplay of these three makes intuitive and practical sense. Higher level of academic preparation establishes a foundation for success at a wider range of institutions and programs. Psychosocial developmental factors – the learning environment writ large and its interaction with the growing students – are captured in concepts like fit and engagement. And lastly, as everyone who has advised college students know, there is no substitute for a goal. Students who know what they want to achieve and why are infinitely more able to succeed, persist, and derive value from their college experience.

Habley, Bloom, and Robbins report at a high-level what the research tells us about these factors. They give us studies and institutional accounts of programs and practices. They spell out, in clear terms, how colleges can address student success through systematic study and change. The final section of the book offers a blueprint for how an institution could move forward.

Student Persistence is not an easy read. Packed with provocative information that demands reflection, the book calls for action. I recommend it to anyone interested in student success in higher education.

David Potash

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