On my campus we are in the midst of an active discussion about retention, but we are also planning some changes that we hope will improve undergraduate education and campus life . The academic leadership sees too many students leaving early, and believes that the institution can do more to increase persistence to graduation. While retention plays a role in how the U.S. News & World Report college rankings are compiled (both graduation and retention rates receive a weight of 25% each) there appears to be a greater interest in the economic and social benefits that could accrue to our institution if we can improve retention.
As the library director I’d certainly like to help increase our retention rates though I need to identify good ways we can do that. But whatever programs or services we developed in an effort to improve retention it would be critical to build in the ability to document how it clearly and concretely helps to boost retention. It’s one thing to provide anecdotal evidence or to infer that the library contributes to retention. For example, we can say that an information literacy program enhances a student’s ability to successfully research and write papers – and that academic success contributes to retention. That’s a nice thought, but does that increase retention? We can point to libraries participating in freshman year experiences, but can that be connected to improving retention? I don’t think so. In fact, some schools are already looking beyond freshmen to sophomores as the critical year for retention. What we really need are methods that can be quantified and measured so as to allow us to say something along the lines of “The library was responsible for a 10 percent increase in the number of students who persisted to graduation.” But can we ever achieve that and document it?
Institutions of higher education can take any number of steps to increase retention, either with creative programming or offering more and better amenities. If students are leaving for economic reasons the institution can create better financial aid packages with retention incentives. If the problem seems to be academic in nature, institutions can use NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement) to identify ways in which to better challenge students in and out of classrooms. Students that are engaged in their education are more likely to persist to graduation. There is no real information in NSSE that connects the library to retention. It’s somewhat frustrating because I’m sure many academic librarians believe we offer all sorts of human and material resources that contribute to retention – but how to we prove that? What might we try doing to create a more solid link between the libary and retention?
I don’t claim to have the answers to this question of how we document our contributions to retention, and perhaps the only ray of light here is that for most academic officers, when it comes to developing strategies for better retention, the academic library is nowhere on the radar screen. Those folks are much more focused on the roles of deans, department chairs, student life, diversity officials, residential life and our other academic and administrative colleagues who are seen as having a more substantial impact on improving retention. But let’s consider some ways we could show academic leaders that libraries do contribute to retention:
I’m sure there are other ideas beyond these few so please share them as comments. I find it interesting that Lisa just returned from an assessment conference because our ability to better document our contribution to retention is somehow, I believe, going to have to be derived by assessment. Perhaps this issue has been discussed at past assessment conferences, but if not perhaps it can be addressed in the future. We all have a stake in improving our ability to retain students – and then being able to show how we did it.