Repackaged conversations

I thoroughly enjoyed Rob Jenkins article, Retention in the Trenches (Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18, 2015) where he reminds us that the current focus on college completion is really just a repackaging of an age old concern: retention. Recently states have begun to factor retention (completion rates) into funding formulas for community colleges. So the pressure is on…essentially, if colleges want to improve completion rates they must improve first to second year retention rates. The question is how.

Retention initiative du jour

Over the years we’ve all seen hundreds of new or recycled programs and strategies designed to keep students in college long enough to complete a degree/certificate–or to transfer. So many that it’s hard to keep track of them all. So many that, although we’re not dubious about retaining students, we become dubious about the latest administrative retention scheme du jour. A colleague recently suggested that, perhaps because of the whole “initiative du jour” dynamic, many faculty members have decided retention is not their responsibility. But retention is not just an administrative responsibility, if for no other reason than that soon we’ll all suffer the consequences of low completion rates.

Of course it’s obvious that we have yet to discover the magic retention strategy or program—if we had there wouldn’t be a national conversation/debate about this problem.

Jenkins however points to light at the end of the tunnel: faculty can implement strategies on their own that might have significant impacts on retention. We know that an important factor in student persistence and success is the quality of the classroom experience, or what student-retention expert Sherry Miller Brown calls “academic integration.” And of course that’s especially true for students who are most at risk–nontraditional students and those in developmental education courses.

Make the material relevant.

Rob Jenkins makes several suggestions for improving the classroom experience and thereby student persistence and success. One that resonates with me is his suggestion to make the material relevant. Student engagement studies show that nothing causes students to disengage faster than feeling like what they are studying has no connection to their current or future lives. He presents examples from his composition classes, where he relates any writing strategy to “real world” writing with actual scenarios of future application. His message is that mastering writing will be in the student’s best interest in the long run.

Relevance and guided pathways.

A promising strategy that makes it easier for faculty to create relevance is guided or structured pathways and the curriculum alignment embedded in that strategy. The pathways model will help demonstrate to students that what we’re talking about in a required core course or a developmental education class is actually important in the bigger scheme of things such as a degree, certificate or job. This model is about relevance, about a clear pathway to goals, with appropriate support along the way. Pathways are not just about the college curriculum but are also about structuring pathways from high school to college and beyond. Pathways are about collaboration with our colleagues at feeder high schools to address gaps and redundancies and align high school and first year college course competencies and outcomes.

Colleagues often remind me that many of our most at-risk students crave structure. Perhaps that’s a factor in their being at-risk to begin with—many have never had much structure in their home or school lives. Guided pathways present a clear, structured and coherent pathway to completion and career, far from the maze of courses students are often presented with when they arrive at college.

 I want to remind all of us about an obvious but often ignored point in the completion rhetoric: in order for students to complete college, they first have to complete individual courses and programs. Retention success involves one student at a time, one course and one program at a time. And that’s something that faculty members do have some control over, whatever the latest administrative scheme.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.


DarylPetersonDaryl Peterson is a retired Valencia College director and a community college consultant for Bridge the Divide, a division of EPIC, the Educational Policy Improvement Center. For more information on guided pathways and alignment, contact Kirsten Aspengren at