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Field Report: 2010 Colleges Ontario Student Retention Conference

Many of you have noticed that my travel schedule gets quite intense, particularly in the spring, which is peak conference season. I’ve been privileged to attend a wide array of campus retreats and conferences, and while I keep meaning to share some highlights in this blog, I have come to realize that it simply won’t happen unless I write the blog during the conference itself. So this is my first effort at blogging in real time, using my new iPad to write during the sessions themselves. I’ll try to keep this up as I attend other conferences.

Field Report: 2010 Colleges Ontario Student Retention Conference

Colleges Ontario held an enrollment management conference two years ago, but this spring’s conference in Toronto focused specifically on student retention, “a college-wide imperative.”  (Colleges Ontario conference site)  In these times of fiscal restraint and cuts to travel budgets, it is telling that the conference sold out, with well over 350 delegates from across Ontario and outside the province. Academica Group was proud to sponsor the event, to help make it affordable for the college retention community. I’ll also do my best to present some of the highlights from my point of view. You can also review the slides from presenters here.

Bob Rae on “The Postsecondary Imperative”

The conference kicked off with a keynote address from Bob Rae, MP from Toronto Centre, whose relentless optimism sees economic tough times as a huge opportunity for colleges.  Rick Miner’s report, “People without Jobs, Jobs without People,” outlines the intersection of demographic, economic, and educational factors that create a perfect environment for Ontario’s colleges to retrain the unemployed and recredential immigrants. (PDF of the Miner Report)

Rae told a story of fiscal crisis at the Toronto Symphony, when a musician had the audacity to stand up and tell the board that “we play outstanding music. If the audiences  don’t come out to listen, that’s their problem.” (Obviously, that ivory tower mentality persists among some in higher education today, but in my experience the attitude is quite rare at Ontario’s colleges and polytechnics, which have a rigorously market-focused approach to meeting student demand and labour market needs.)

Rae shared some pretty conventional sentiments about how much respect Canadians have for higher education as THE way to transform their lives and ensure their futures, but he got a round of applause when he urged the creation of a lifelong Ontario student number, to allow tracking of students through primary, secondary, and any and all forms of tertiary education. He echoed the feelings of many in the room when he hoped for pathways from college to university, and observed that many students now proceed from university to college for post-degree diploma programs.

Rae believes that “students will vote with their feet.” We are living in a non-deferential, customer-driven society in which patients bring their doctors a list of potential diseases, and clients bring their lawyers directives instead of waiting for advice.  Institutions are going to have to change to accommodate mature students, aboriginal students,  and other nontraditional students. Universities and colleges are now challenged to become more flexible. We can’t afford to be stuffy or tradition-bound.

Rae also passionately argues for the need for increased financial aid, since rising tuitions are creating “sticker shock” for students. He echoes Michael Ignatieff in describing the ideal situation, in which “If you get the grades, you get to go.”  There is more salesmanship in packaging financing plans for new car sales than for college education. We have to make it possible for students to go, Rae says, and be “in the sales business.”  Economic pressures and debt lead many students to drop out of college. Rae believes that governments can do much more to create the financial environment in which students can afford to stay at college.

Jim Black on the Institutional Framework

While many Canadians may have heard of Dr Jim Black and his strategic enrollment management consulting company,  SEM Works, what you may NOT know is that SEM Works and Academica Group have been working together for a year now to bring integrated SEM Consulting and enrollment research to colleges and universities throughout North America.  I’ve had the opportunity to hear Jim speak many times now, at a variety of association conferences and of course at the SEMM Forums we co-sponsor across Canada and the US.

His morning session at the Colleges Ontario retention conference focused on “an Institutional Framework for Retention.” He urged those on a retention committee to focus on what they can control first, then what they can influence, and not to get bogged down on those factors they cannot affect at all.  Jim shared a sneak peek at survey data Academica Group gathered and analyzed for HEQCO, showing that many underrepresented groups are not actually at higher risk for retention, with the exception of students with disabilities. Their main reasons for dropping out, or stopping out, are that their career goals changed or they found they did not like the program they were in. The lack of clarity around career goals is the number one reason that early leavers do not complete the postsecondary program.  Jim has found that classroom management is a frequent concern of students, because many students in a classroom don’t actually want to be there.

Factors that colleges CAN affect include sufficient section and seat capacity, quality of instruction, instructor responsiveness, faculty engagement, program renewal, student challenge, and consistent, high-quality advising. Advising should be a core piece of student retention, but on many campuses advising is primarily about scheduling, and occurs just once a year. Class attendance can be a significant predictor of retention — in some ways, if we just took roll call at classes, we would increase retention, Jim says. There are new technologies to take attendance invisibly and silently too. Mid-terms are not early academic feedback — it’s too late, and often triggers a tailspin.  Some academic policies are simply too brutal, and should be revisited. Suspensions, for example, are not intervention, it’s just cutting students off at the knees — and most suspended students never re-enroll.

Across campus, Jim observed, there is a difference between mere information sharing and communication, and full-fledged collaboration and integration. Everyone on campus needs to be working together toward common goals, pulling in the same direction. Jim described a global signature program developed by a Chicago university, which integrated assessments, services, and student success counseling throughout the curriculum and the four-year program. Effective pre-enrolment advising can have a huge impact on recruitment yield as well as retention through the year. 

Lane Trotter, the Senior VP Academic at Fanshawe College, spoke about the importance of aligning systems and processes with the four-year academic plan. Fanshawe is  working toward a “student persona” model to segment students into four groups (he can’t tell us or he’d have to kill us), and task groups to look at timetabling, actionable intelligence, and engagement. At Fanshawe, “SEM is giving us permission to make the changes we have to make.”

At Centennial College, many task forces were converging on advising as a key element.  Advising was being delivered through many service providers without any cross-functional communication or training. Centennial has developed an advising model in partnership with students and others, for proactive interventions. Centennial College has  created a web-based advisor portal and CRM database to coordinate all advising interactions with any given student.

Jim asserts that the old platitude, “retention is everybody’s business” doesn’t really work because there is no campus champion for the issue. You need someone telling the success stories, advocating for policy changes, coordinating efforts and driving consensus-building.

Finally, Jim spoke out against “the tyranny of retention myths.”  Academic failure is not the main cause of student attrition.  Student success is defined by the student, not the institution.  Mid-term grades are too late to be early intervention. Students stop out, they don’t drop out — and colleges should create re-recruitment strategies to bring them back into the fold, particularly during the first year. And maybe, just maybe, not all students should be retained; some aren’t actually committed to the learning process.

Ross Finnie on Student Persistence

Dr. Ross Finnie, from the University of Ottawa, spoke to the conference after lunch on Student Persistence, and the Ontario College reality in particular.  Finnie was presenting the Ontario results of a study done at the national level, using data from 25,000 respondents from the Youth In Transition Survey(YITS)  “B” cohort from 1999-2008.

Overall, about 55% of Ontario college students appear to be graduating within five years of starting their first program.  Most switching between institutions occurs in year one (about 13% of students), as does most early leaving (17%).  About 23% of leavers return after one year, and another 15% after two years; fully 40% have returned after three years. Looking at cumulative graduation rates (graduating from any program at any college), more than 70% of students graduate within five years. About 80% graduate or persist throughout all of the first five years — just 20% are actually lost. Students could save time and money, however, if we worked harder to ensure that they were well advised in selecting the right program in the first place.

Considering the reasons students give for leaving a program, just 10% blame money and another 10% say they “wanted to work,” while 41% say the program was “not for me,” and 25% switch to change studies. (Based on regression analysis, program fit is the single most important predictive factor.) Immigrants and visible minorities in Ontario place huge importance and value on PSE, and are statisticallyless likely to leave — at an equivalent level to the impact of having university-educated parents. (Surprisingly, immigrants who are not visible minorities are significantly more likely to leave college in Ontario than immigrants who are visible minorities.)  Students who receive grants appear to be less likely to leave than students who receive loans, although the causality needs further study. First generation PSE students, although less likely to pursue PSE, are actually somewhat more likely to persist once there. In actual fact, family backgrounds are not important predictors of persistence — attitudes and grades are what matter.

Measuring the Impact of Retention Strategies

Nancy Miyagi, the manager of institutional research at George Brown College, provided an overview of “Best Practices in Measuring the Impact of Student Retention Strategies” based on a HEQCO-funded study of their Student Success Program.  GBC has invested about $1 million annually since 2008 in the SSP, a decentralized program involving faculty Student Success Specialists as well as Student Success Coordinator advisors.  Academic initiatives include peer learning groups, linked courses, and team-based learning. Ongoing orientation initiatives include lunch and learn sessions and in-class quick tips. The Early Alert initiative encourages faculty to identify students in weeks 3-6 so the team can offer proactive support.  “We don’t wait for students to come to us; we go to the students.”

Miyagi described the series of quantitative and qualitative measurement tools that GBC used to examine awareness, use, and impact of the various SSP initiatives. I hope I misunderstood, but I believe she was saying that no statistically significant improvements in grades or retention were observed in year 1. Some faculty misunderstood the purpose of the SSP, and felt that their teaching abilities were in doubt. Others thought they were “working at cross purposes” because not all students deserve to stay in the program. A key lesson learned: it was vital to have faculty champions to promote the SSP.

The Student Perspective

The first afternoon of the conference wrapped up with a panel of five mature college students and recent graduates talking about student persistence from the student point of view. Each frankly described their personal backgrounds and challenges, and made a number of recommendations. Taking attendance in classes increases student engagement. It’s up to the student to get engaged in their student experience. First Nations people are doing well as mature students, but First Nations youth need more encouragement to pursue PSE.  A variety of teaching styles helps mature students, and having approachable faculty matters.  Colleges should introduce new students to support services that are available at every potential start date, not just in September. Textbooks are great for reference, but the learning often happens in the hands-on. Auditory listeners can’t take notes and listen simultaneously — circulate handouts of the Powerpoint slides in advance for note-taking.  Academic awards and scholarships are key for many students who may not qualify for OSAP.  Students need advice on how to handle money, almost as much as they need money. “Treat students as partners, not as customers.”  Several speakers praised on-campus Aboriginal friendship centres. One of the most important things that any student and faculty member can develop is a real connection, “a sense that the prof believes in me.” Students need to know their own weaknesses.  Students might benefit from more information about peer workshops and other services with their acceptance letters — the first week of classes there’s information overload. College students appreciate teachers with real-world experience, and that they can relate to beyond the content of the course.

A number of comments echoed what Ross Finnie observed earlier in the day: persistence hinges on the perception that the program is right for me. “Students have to really believe in what they’re studying.”Students in high school should really do more than “a half a credit in careers.”  Apprenticeship training is more engaging because everything taught is immediately relevant (so maybe more programs need to convey relevance in class?). In the end, this sounds like a good definition of academic engagement.  “If teachers see that you don’t care, then obviously they’re not going to care.”

Word from the Minister

The second day of the conference opened with a few words of greeting from John Milloy, Ontario minister of Training, Colleges and Universities and of Research and Innovation.  He emphasized that student retention is a great concern of the ministry, and urged the enhancement of one of the finest PSE systems in Canada. The province is aiming for a 70% retention rate, and to achieve that level, we need to reach out to students who do not fit the traditional mould. He also emphasized the need for strong career planning and co-op programs in high school, to ensure that students choose the right program from the start. But Milloy also remarked on the ambitious plans of many students to transfer between colleges and universities, and the need to break down barriers to such transferability. He warned that MTCU will be pushing for better data on retention and completion for college certificate and diploma programs, and expressed hope that the outcomes of this conference lead to measures that can be implemented province-wide.

Factors Driving Attrition

Dr Roger Fisher, from Fanshawe College, presented the results from research he conducted at Fanshawe funded by the Canadian Council on Learning. 6,500 students in the incoming Fall 2007 cohort were studied longitudinally for three terms. 28% of students had left by the Winter 2008 term, and 37% by Fall 2008.

Students admitted in August and September were considerably more likely to drop out, but there were very few students in that category. Students were more likely to drop out if they were placed in a program that was their 4th, 5th, or lower choice — but again, practically speaking, there are very few students in those circumstances at Fanshawe. There is a significantly higher drop-out rate among male students, which may reflect higher use of counseling services by females.

Much more significantly, students who did not successfully complete an academic upgrading program were twice as likely to drop out (73%).  Naturally, academic under-preparedness is a major cause of student attrition, and Fisher will be proposing to the province mandatory diagnostic literacy testing of all admitted students.

But also, student engagement scores were almost twice as high for students who persisted, whereas students who dropped out were much more likely to report that they felt socially isolated or felt like a number at the college. These scores were gathered as the students commenced their programs — making them strong predictors of retention a year later. Fisher expressed concern for these “threshold students,” who are on campus but still have one foot back home, who are not fully engaged or present.  Not surprisingly, they are more likely to make the decision to step back out. By contrast, students who persisted said the campus felt more like “a home away from home” where “people care about my success.” Student retention requires that students gain a sense of family on campus, a sense that instructors genuinely care about them, and a sense that they are part of the campus community.  Whatever processes we use to address attrition, Fisher emphasizes, should be applied to students of all kinds, not just those at higher risk.

Insights from Cognitive Science

Bob Aitken, of Vancouver Community College, argues that teachers make the difference in student retention: “When students feel they are learning, they tend to stay.”  Students can rate the effectiveness of instructors based on 10-second video clips without any sound. Good teachers care, are enthusiastic, get students involved in a variety of ways, and give clear presentations. Students start programs with broad, sometimes altruistic motivations, but by mid-year they become focused on simply passing the exam.

Brains are incredibly complex, with a quadrillion neural connections, and are shaped by gender and culture in unique ways. For classroom motivation, men need more competition, women need more cooperation.  Adults grow 10,000 new neurons every day — you’re never too old to learn.

The amygdala is the seat of memory and emotion in the brain. You need to reduce stress to improve cognitive functioning — stress kills neurons and connections. And the worst stressors are ongoing — incompetent instructors, hectic schedules, etc.  Test anxiety shuts down memory function, sending blood away from the brain and toward the limbs for a fight or flight reaction.  Stress can be reduced by a sense of mission in life, or by a caring environment.

Data affecting survival (financial troubles for example) and emotions (boyfriend troubles, say)  take precedence in memory over intellectual information. We need to engage the emotions when teaching, and help students understand patterns instead of focusing on facts, the “trivial pursuit” approach to learning.True learning needs to be “mindful.” Aitken demonstrated effective teaching with some visual, engaging, and memorable demonstrations of Newton’s First Law of Motion.

Aitken also left us with a final thought: the latest findings disprove the argument that millennial students are great multitaskers. The human brain can focus on only one cognitive task at a time.

Translating Theory into Institutional Action

The conference wound up with a workshop facilitated by Jim Black, bringing together college staffs to focus on their own institutions. Jim began by explaining that, to achieve a student retention culture at your institution, you need vision, skills, incentives, resources, and finally an action plan. Only with all five of these components can you achieve significant, positive culture change; missing components can create confusion, frustration, or false starts.

Each table was given 20 minutes to brainstorm 3 things to purge (programs, services, or strategies), 3 things to continue or enhance, and 3 new things to add.  Those willing to share with the group mentionedpurging dysfunctional committees and processes, enhancing telephone systems and website information architecture, and improving career advising for high school students and on-campus coaching or mentoring.

Conference delegates were sent back to their campuses to act as evangelists, and hopefully transform some of what we learned at the conference into action.

My Key Take-Aways

Everyone seems in agreement that a key difficulty in understanding student persistence and success is thelack of a single student number to allow tracking of those students who stop out, re-enroll elsewhere, or switch programs or colleges. Switchers and stop-outs are distorting our perception of retention.

Moreover, it seems clear from the statistical evidence presented by Dr. Ross Finnie, the institutional experience presented by Dr. Jim Black, and the student perspective provided by a panel of college students, that the most critical factor in student success happens before they enroll — career planning courses in high school, careful career and academic advising, and ensuring the motivation and aptitudes are present for student success in the program.  Recruiting students who can be retained is vital.

That being said, the data provided by Dr Roger Fisher makes it clear that a powerful driver of attrition is a sense of social isolation.  One thing that college faculty and staff can do to make a massive difference in a student’s life is demonstrate that they actually care about the student as a person.  Students don’t so much crave “customer service” as they crave a personal connection, and thrive when they sense that a professor believes in them, or a staff person wants to help.

Finally, there must also be at least a grain of truth in Bob Aitken’s observation that when students feel they are learning, they tend to stay. Effective and innovative pedagogy will have an impact on student retention, although some of the data suggests the impact is far smaller than we might expect.

I wasn’t able to attend every session, and doubtless others took away things that I missed. Please feel free to add comments below with your own observations from the conference!

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