Retention: the Holy Grail of enrollment


Deb Bouton

Margo Warden

“Every student, every day,” says Director of First-Year Experience Margo Warden of Johnson State College’s plan for increasing student retention rates.

This basic idea may understate the true complexity of student retention, though. A way to simplify the issue, according to Warden, is to recognize that retention is more than just one department’s responsibility.

“I think connection is a key word that drives our work here on campus,” said Warden. “I think it is understood that student success — retention — is really everybody’s responsibility here on campus: faculty, staff, and even, to a certain extent, upperclassmen.”

As for the numbers themselves, Warden says that since the start of the first-year experience office, there have been modest gains regarding retention.

“We were able to increase retention by about 5 percent,” says Warden. “And since then, we’ve been seeing some forward movement. It’s just such a complex animal, because you’ve got the recruitment side — what is the profile and the needs of the student coming in? — that can change from year to year. Two years ago, our retention rate was 68 percent, and then from fall 2014 to fall 2015 it was 68 percent as well.”
Being content with stability, however, is not Warden’s goal for future incoming classes; steady growth and student success for those students is.

“We’re working into a healthier number. You certainly want to get into the seventies,” said Warden. “But to have stability — it feels good — but we have to really take time and work to see what these numbers mean. It really is providing opportunities for students to connect with each other, with upperclassmen, with their faculty, and with their advisors for conversation and building relationships. That’s a big piece of what we’re looking at. It really is about connections.”

A big reason for Warden’s optimism regarding the retention of future cohorts is the emphasis that is placed on high-impact educational practices, such as the orientation programs, common reading initiative, learning communities, and first-year seminars.

Warden noted the significant retention success for those in the two pilot learning communities, Art and Human Dignity and Go Globull, which focuses on business and entrepreneurship.

“The retention rate for the fall 2014 cohort was 68 percent, as I said, but looking at the learning communities — and we only had two — in one it was 82 percent [Art and Human Dignity], and the other it was 76 percent [Go Globull],” said Warden. “The point is if this is 68 percent for the general, for the learning communities, it’s up by quite a bit. Because that really is a platform [where] we can really bring in so many of these high-impact educational practices.”

Warden also says that the emphasis should remain on the student as an individual rather than as a statistic when it comes to analyzing and projecting retention rates.

“It’s easy to just look at the numbers, 65-68 percent, but we need to keep in mind if 68 percent of our students return, 32 percent of our students did not,” said Warden. “So let’s look at the percentages. How does that translate into numbers? How many students of our incoming class came in the fall full of hope? We can’t hide behind the anonymity of percentages or numbers. We want to know our students’ names when they’re coming in the door, and we need to know how they’re experiencing Johnson State College.”

Cooperation with task forces such as the strategic enrollment and retention task force, which Warden and Associate Dean of Enrollment Services Penny Howrigan co-chair, is also an important ingredient to creating the structure for healthy learning environments for students.

“What this task force does is broaden this whole conversation and opportunity, and in the end there will be an enrollment and management, and recruitment and retention, plan that’s going to come out of this,” said Warden. “And this is going to be informed by so many of the other task forces and will inform some of their work as well.”

Warden hopes that the result of this plan will translate into a higher rate of student retention among cohorts from their freshman year to their sophomore year, and so on.

Warden noted that an increase in student retention from year to year with a given cohort would help buffer any projected dip in incoming students. Thus, it becomes imperative to maintain a healthy number of students moving on to the next class — from the freshmen to senior years —  and the chances for that are greatly improved by retaining more between freshmen and sophomore years.

Most of all, she stresses that the way to obtain such positive results is to build a sense of community and belonging that will encourage students to remain at Johnson for four years.

A sense of belonging “is a very powerful condition for student happiness and success,” says Warden. “So when you say retention, I really look at the word success. If students are feeling successful, students are going to stay. Retention is an institutional word — students don’t come to college and say ‘God, I hope I’m retained!’”

Instead, Warden suggests they hope they are happy and successful here. “That’s what we need to focus on,” she said.