Friday, November 21, 2008

Targetting Aid

At the 2008 Assessment Institute I spent my time in sessions on first year seminars and retention strategies. I learned some interesting stuff. One was that at one institution where assignments were tracked, it wasn't the quality of student work that predicted retention, but the amount of it. I decided to test that at my institution by looking at our home-grown portfolio system statistics. I compared the average number of paper submissions by students who were retained to those who left for a single semester. There was no significant difference in our case.

Most strategies I saw targeted student engagement in one way or another. Activities like learning communities or work study increased the likelihood of student success. I asked questions about how retention committees worked with financial aid offices to fine tune awards. This was based on my own work here showing that grades and money are the two big predictors of attrition. No one I talked to had done such a thing, citing institutional barriers to efforts. Well, we've done it here, and had some limited success. Here's what we did.

The graph below shows the student population divided into total aid categories in increments of $3000. This is plotted against retention (dark line) for that group and (on the right scale) GPA for that group (magenta).

It's obvious that both grades and retention increase with financial aid, which says some interesting things about they way we recruit students, grant institutional aid, and provide academic support services. Ultimately this has led to a comprehensive retention plan I called Plan 9. But what we did immediately was focus on the group of students that have a decent GPA, but are historically showing low retention. That's the group circled on the graph. We targeted these students with small extra aid awards, and saw retention for that group sore to over 80%. I did a follow-up survey of the students receiving this aid to ask if it made a difference. My response rate was low, and the results lead me to believe there were other factors at work too. Maybe we just got lucky. But the results were so good we're trying it again this year.

Plan 9 includes lots of engagement stuff, and is really a comprehensive look at retention from marketing all the way through a graduate's career. A big part of it will focus on re-engineering aid policies. It always amazes me how budget discussions in the spring focus so much attention on tuition policies, when for private colleges at least, aid policies are much more important.

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