I have spent most of my academic life trying to understand the factors for successful retention. Both as a social scientist, because it is interesting, but also for the day job – managing a university.
Over the years I have found that there are a number of factors which seem to make a difference: the student and their context; the institution and its culture; and the relationship to place. I like to refer to this as a sort of golden triangle which, if we get it right, holds the student within it. Much research on retention in the UK and in the US has focused on questions of how much a student feels that they belong at the institution where they study. The ‘golden triangle’ analysis aims to pull apart this rather amorphous term in order to identify effective interventions. We have been using this approach at the University of Lincoln to great effect – only 3.7% of our student don’t continue with their studies compared to a sector benchmark of 7.2%. This is despite the fact that 18.4% come to us from low participation neighbourhoods compared to a sector benchmark of 11.3% for the 2015/16 intake.
Students in context
So let’s start with the student and their context. Quite frankly a lot of the literature, even when it doesn’t want to or mean to, creates students as deficient. Far more helpful is to start from the position that every student comes with a life history. By the time a student arrives in higher education they have had at least 18 years building up experience, habits, beliefs and practices. Increasingly we are understanding the impact that interactions very early on have on who they are. I have heard too many HE specialists and leaders focus on educational deficiencies which they do not regard as their responsibility to address. But not only is the educational background of any student your issue if you admit them to your institution but their overall life experience impacts on their ability to engage.
A student’s life experience affects their sense of self, their level of confidence and their ambitions. All of these are shaped by society and family as much as by the individual. It is essential to talk with students about their background as soon as they arrive. It is important to move beyond assumptions and ask them directly what they think they can bring and what they are worried about. This is especially true for students who come from different backgrounds to those of their tutors or of others in their group. It sounds obvious but it isn’t standard practice. This is why at Lincoln we have enhanced our provision of personal tutoring and use diagnostics with our students before they even arrive with us.
A distinct institutional culture
Institutional culture is the second angle on the triangle. For a long time, I have been fascinated by institutional cultures. There are so many practices and behaviours that are taken for granted that it is often difficult to identify an institution’s distinct culture and even more difficult to fully articulate it. For new students it can be very disorientating if there is no explicit discussion about what the institution is like or if expectations of behaviour and engagement are not made clear. In this context, I remain astonished that even now only about 50% of applications to HE visit the institutions they have applied to.
At Lincoln we are working to grasp the essence of our culture and open up the dialogue with students as they join the institution and beyond. This helps them to understand the often unwritten rules of institutional culture so that they can fully join the community. One of my research projects on the topic found a strong correlation between how much a student identified with and felt comfortable in their institution and their own sense of academic esteem – and ultimately with their marks. Culture matters.
A sense of place
The final angle on the triangle is place. I have come to this key element of student success quite late but I am now convinced it is very important and it is not talked about explicitly in any of the literature. At a basic level we can think about place in terms of the campus. Indeed, there have been some correlations drawn between good retention rates and campus-based institutions. It is clear that the early immersion experienced within a campus-based institution can be very positive for many students but it does not suit all students. For example, mature students are likely to have other calls on their time and be involved with activities across a wider geography. To ensure a better experience for all, institutions need a greater understanding and involvement with place beyond the campus walls.
The goal is to create an ecosystem of support with local partners. There are many examples of how this can work in practice. At Lincoln we work with the local mental health trust to ensure that there is a full offer of planned support for students beyond what we could offer on campus. A lot has been written, including by me, about the value of students engaging in extracurricular activities. It is true that it does correlate with success in HE, but for some students this may not be possible due to other commitments. So working with these students to help them see the value of other locally based activities is key. Understanding local schools and childcare provision is important for mature students. And working with local authorities and businesses to enhance the area, including the cultural offer, and provision of services is also part of the mix. All of these elements support retention, even though they cannot be simply quantified.
I am not suggesting that this is a simple formula for student success but a broader focus does open up a great dialogue to help colleagues and students reflect on practice and develop a deeper insight into the range of factors that affect learning in higher education.