What’s Our Contribution To Retention

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:

  • Better surveys of alumni to include specific questions about how librarians and libraries contributed to student’s persisting to graduation.
  • When appropriate, have a presence in first-year learning experiences, freshman seminars or whatever they call it on your campus, and if a sophomore experience is developing – be there are well; while our involvement in these programs may have some indirect benefit it could be hard to connect our presence to improved retention (what exactly did we do?).
  • Connect with students whenever and wherever on a personal level; there are stories about student workers who persisted to graduation because a librarian served as a mentor but libraries are not well equipped to reach a large number of students with the personal treatment.
  • Advocate to have the administrators of NSSE add a question or two about how the library contributes to a more engaged student, as well as the degree of importance of the library to student success.
  • Develop better assessment tools and metrics to capture the impact of the library on student retention.
  • Have more of an academic library presence at a national conference on student retention so that we can be at the table when these discussions take place; we need to let our fellow academic professionals know what we can do to help – and we need to know more about what they are learning about improving and measuring 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.

    8 thoughts on “What’s Our Contribution To Retention”

    1. Let me talk the NSSE suggestion a step further. I’m on an ACRL group that is working with the NSSE administrators to try and get relevant questions added to the base instrument. (We’re also working on questions for the CCSSE – that is the community college instrument.) In the meantime, if you have the ability, you might consider adding the questions we have developed as the items for consideration. One advantage of adding the same questions at multiple institutions is benchmarking and testing for reliability. Email me if you want to know more about the questions and I can put you in touch with the group’s chair.

    2. Steven,
      You are not alone in asking these questions. Thanks for summarizing them so well and providing suggestions. I think I may have a 2004 research study that will help you provide more of the quantification you are looking for.

      The study concludes that:

      “Based on these results, the best “payoffs” in higher graduation rates from strategically targeted institutional budgetary enhancements would seem to come from increasing per student expenditures for instruction (+1.99 percentage points), followed closely by library (+1.77)…the greatest “payoff” is attributable to enhanced expenditures on library (+0.92) and instruction (+0.80),”.

      Basically they estabalish a direct correlation between expenditures on the library and graduation rates.

      Hope this helps you in your quest.

    3. Chadwick – thank for sharing this information – i will take a look. The data could provide a starting point but I think we still have our work cut out for us.

    4. To Lisa,
      I read the ACRL article about the questions ALA suggested for addition to the NSSE. I think it is a strategic move to get a question incorporated into this survey.

      I am in a community college and have asked that the questions suggested in the artilce be put into the CCSSE that is given at my college. I was told that an institution can add some of its own questions. I used the ACRL article as support.

      I am wondering what questions you have recommended to be included on the CCSSE survey.


    5. The latest issue of C & RL News (July/August 2007) http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlpubs/crlnews/backissues2007/julyaugust07/infolitstudent.htm
      contains the findings from the information-literacy and library use items on the 2006 NSSE that Lisa references.

      This quotation from NSSE associate director and consultant to the committe’s work shows that the IL-related behaviors are significantly related to other NSSE measures of student engagement, which is related to retention, although NSSE does not directly capture any retention data.
      “The correlations between the information literacy scales and the other NSSE measures are as good or nearly as good as other scales on NSSE. What this indicates is that all these behaviors and perceptions go together, as roughly the same students that use the campus library resources actively also report that they are “deep learners,” “collaborative learners,” and so on.”

      There are lots of studies with correlational evidence about the library’s contributions to retention. What is important to realize, though, is that these studies, like the NSSE findings, are correlational and do not prove causality.

      As we all know, to “prove” the library’s role/contributions to any student success indicator must be carefully approached with rigorous methodology. The better studies that I have seen are experimental or quasi-experimental ones attempting to “prove” the effects of library research/IL instruction. Often, however, the samples are quite small or the methodology is a bit flawed, so we really need much more replication of the methodologies used in what we can agree are excellent studies.
      One last thought about “proof” and our role related to retention. Perhaps, we need to educate our administrators to accept the types of evidence that our regional accreditation agencies accept; that is, they encourage a multiple measures approach to substantiating claims made related to educational improvement or other student success claims. So, we need to collect a variety of different types of quantitative and qualitative data to document our role and impact — such as:
      1. using the types of correlation data that Glendale College (http://www.glendale.edu/library/instruction/documents/ICEval05.pdf), Palo Alto College in San Antonio, and others have used that connect participation in library/IL research workshops with GPA and college persistence;

      2. using findings from IL behaviors items from the student engagement survey, like NSSE and other national (or local) surveys;

      3. analyses of collection/info. resources use by students in relation to curriculum and course assignment requirements; or other ways to show the integration and use of library/information resources in the curriculum;

      4. more rigorous studies of the effects of IL instruction on student learning outcomes (even better if could be a longitudinal study that links the findings to GPA and persistence

      5. annual descriptions and more promotion campus-wide of the effects/contributions to the college and student learning of the partnerships that academic librarians have with other faculty, administrators, student services staff, etc. (perception of value/positive contributions is heavily influenced by publicity/promotion of what we do);

      6. combining user survey data with anecdotal evidence — the numbers/percentages can become much more powerful when combined with comments and brief “stories” that students and faculty tell us about how our services, programs, exhibitions, workshops, etc have made a difference to their academic successs, their personal growth and so on. Our curator of library exhibitions puts a journal out by every major exhibition and you’d be surprised how students are affected and how they express their reactions.

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