Key findings from a study entitled “Administrator Perceptions of Student Retention Factors.” identify factors perceived by college administrators as most important to student retention at colleges and universities having a significant Black student population.
Administrators from a sample of 31 institutions affiliated with the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), each having Black student enrollment of 20% or more, who responded to a 21-item survey instrument considered students’ financial resources and academic abilities the most important of seven main factors.
Results were compared statistically between administrators from schools with higher retention rates (81% average for three years) and those schools with low retention rates (56% average for three years).
Furthermore, the study sought to determine the existence of systematic differences between the factors considered most important by administrators at schools with high retention rates and those with low rates, using a sample of institutions affiliated with the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).
Key Findings for Retaining Black Students at Christian Colleges
Among the key findings of the study is that administrators recognize the relevance of multiple factors to the retention of students from the first to second year of higher education. The most important of these, in their view, are the students’ financial resources and academic capabilities at college entry. Schools that comprehensively addressed both these areas tended to have higher retention rates than those that did not.
The administrator perceptions of the importance of institutional variables seems linked to retention outcomes. Below are five key ways that administrators at Christian colleges with a high Black student population prioritized and integrated programs and practices to increase retention:
1. High Retention Christian Colleges Prioritize Financial Aid
Administrators of schools with high retention rates valued institutional financial resources and financial aid resources more highly than did their peers at institutions with low retention rates. Similarly, administrators at schools with high retention rates placed much greater value on institutional practices such as providing financial aid advisement and tuition relief than did their peers at low retention schools.
2. High Retention Christian Schools Use More Institutional Programming
High retention schools also use more institutional programming than their low retention counterparts and they make greater use of such institution-driven programs as tutoring and pre-enrollment advising than do low retention schools. And schools with higher retention rates used a greater number of retention-focused programs and practices on average.
Specifically, high retention Christian colleges valued and utilized programs and practices that address the two key undying student variables of student financial need and academic readiness, as is discussed in the points below.
3. High Retention Christian Universities Engage Black Students Early
The ways in which schools responded to academic readiness and financial need also appeared important in this study. Schools with higher retention rates tended to have early engagement and intervention with students on both issues, typically before enrollment in the institution. This was reflected in their high ranking of and use of pre-enrollment advisement, both for academics and financial aid. This preference for early engagement is also reflected in the value high retention schools placed on early warning/monitoring systems and remedial classes.
4. High Retention Colleges Approach Black Students with Direct and Intensive Financial Aid and Academic Assistance
The form of programming mattered in other important ways. Those schools that valued indirect and passive approaches, such as advisement centers, tended to have low retention rates. By contrast, schools that favored and used direct approaches such as financial aid advising tended to have higher retention rates. Similarly, Christian colleges that favored intensive approaches to academics, such as tutoring and remedial classes tended to have high retention, whereas those that preferred low-intensity approaches like academic support centers had low retention.
5. High Retention Christian Schools Offer Black Students Easy Access to a Variety of Advisors and Interpersonal Contact
The use of retention programming also appeared affected by the use of interpersonal contact. The programs and practices preferred by high retention institutions were not only active in their nature, but tended to be interpersonal in their delivery. The various advising approaches favored by such schools all require direct interpersonal contact between students and advisors that create tangible human connections in the course of addressing academic or financial concerns. Additionally, the prominence of tutoring over other modes of academic support delivery is striking because the inherently personal practice forms relationships between institutional personnel and students.
One of the more unexpected findings of the study was that advisement seemed to be an important form of intervention. Much more than their counterparts at low retention colleges, administrators at high retention colleges valued increases in the number of academic advisors and favored the use of pre-enrollment academic and financial aid advising, as well advising interventions in general. These perspectives were matched by a higher frequency use of such programs by high retention schools.
Why Studying Black Student Retention Is Important
Education has the capacity to change lives. A college degree is essential to improving an individual’s standard of living; in fact, those with a college education or higher earns twice as much as those with a high school diploma or equivalent alone (NCES, 2010). Given the disparities in the labor market facing Black workers, it is more important for Black Americans to obtain a college degree education than it is for their White counterparts (NCES, 2010).
An important element in the process of obtaining a college degree is the Black graduation rate (Rothenberg, 2004; Darder, Baltodano, & Torres, 2009). While Black students now enter college more often, only 43% of them graduate, well below the 63% White student graduation rate (Cross & Slater, 2001). This poses a significant problem, because graduates gain much more human capital than those who do not complete college (National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 2009).
Relatively lower graduation rates precede higher attrition rates for Black students compared to Whites in each year of college matriculation (Skomsvold et al., 2011). For the purpose of this study, retention means the rate at which students continue from the first to second year, and it is markedly lower for Black students than White ones. If more Black students per capita are lost at the transition to the second year, fewer of them will ultimately graduate, and therefore fewer will have the opportunity to increase their human capital and transmit wealth to their descendants. Thus, lower Black student retention undermines equality in education and in human capital along lines of race.
Real social and economic equality can be achieved only when disparities in retention are erased.
While student retention was studied frequently, there are important racial differences in the factors that drive retention and the dominant student retention models have been repeatedly criticized for including only those variables relevant to a White student population.
A review of the seminal model (Tinto, 1975) revealed a theoretical bias toward individual student variables that excludes institutional variables that might affect the individual. This is problematic, because students of color, and Black students in particular, face unsupportive and unwelcoming social conditions (Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Rankin & Reason, 2005; Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Suarez-Balcazar et al., 2003) that can affect student outcomes such as retention (Berger & Braxton, 1998). Furthermore, Tinto (1975) and other popular models exclude economic factors, such as family income, the amount and kind of financial aid received (Paulsen & St. John, 2002), cost of tuition (St. John et al., 2005), and availability of financial aid (St. John, 2000; St. John et al., 2005).
Such economic variables may be more salient for Black students than their White peers (Carter, 2006; Swail, 2004; St. John et al., 2005), largely because Black students are disproportionately represented in lower income brackets (Kuh et al., 2008; Paulson & St. John, 2002).
Limitations of the Study
Interpretation of the findings must be made with caution given several limitations of the study. The most significant of these is the small sample size, which increases the risk either of missing real trends within the population, or of falsely attributing sample-specific patterns to the wider population. Furthermore, a purposeful convenience sample was used, both for ease of access, and to exclude schools with smaller Black student populations. These non-probability approaches limit generalizability, even to other schools affiliated with ABHE.
Another key limitation is the exploratory nature of the study and its use of descriptive analyses. These disallow the making of predictive or causal inferences.
Finally, 23 programs and practices were offered as possible programs and practices being used by the participating schools, but these were selected from a larger list of 94 programs and practices utilized in previous research (Habley et al., 2010a).
While these were the most common choices in that study, some programs and practices may have been excluded.
Despite these limitations, the findings offer answers to important questions regarding retention at institutions with higher-than-average proportions of Black students. It also raises important questions about issues of retention and race as they pertain to ABHE-affiliated schools, and points to possible directions for future research that may benefit not only such schools, but institutions of higher learning in general.
Recommendations for Practice and Application
Despite the limitations of the study that demand the cautious interpretation of the results, there are several implications for the practice of administration of institutions of higher education with respect to retention, and especially with respect to schools with large populations of Black students, students from lower income brackets, or both.
- Money matters; facilitate student access to financial aid resources. The development of a financial aid advisement program may be the single most effective, low-cost approach to a rapid and lasting improvement in student retention.
- Academics matter; facilitate student academic development possibly through pre-enrollment advisement and intensive academic support and development.
Moreover, administrators from schools with higher retention rates utilized these programs and practices:
- valued and used more retention programming than low retention institutions,
- employed comprehensive strategies to meet students’ academic and financial needs,
- engaged students earlier,
- used interpersonal delivery of advisement and academic support,
- used more direct and intensive practices, and
- focused on proactive, institution-driven approaches.
While the sample size is small, the results are intuitively appealing. The implications for institutional resource allocation in schools with relatively high Black student bodies are significant.
A large scale, longitudinal study using a control group could validate the findings and sharpen the focus on institutional programs and practices with the greatest potential to improve Black student retention at a time when an important national discussion about reforming education is ongoing.