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Voices of the Global Community


David B. Spight, NACADA Past President

David Spight.jpgThe end of the 2019 calendar year fast approaches, and many of our institutions have students graduating this December. It is important, however, to consider the many students who did not persist to degree completion. On my campus, for every five students who walk across that stage, one member of the class is missing. This is the non-persister, the student who even six years later does not receive a degree with the entering members of their class. Across the country, for decades, institutions have been pondering how to improve retention and degree completion rates. And yet, in spite of all kinds of programs and centers and initiatives, few of us have really moved the needle much in the right direction.

In our search for the easy answer to a complex question: How can we help our students persist?, our institutions have overlooked the fact that we have been asking the wrong question all along. The revision should read: How can we help our student persist? And we need to ask it thousands of times.

Reliably, our campus’ strategies for moving this needle have centered on improving retention for a particular group of students. Attention has often been placed on improving the retention rates of this group, or that group, because that group is at greater risk of leaving than the other groups of students. In fact, centers designed for a particular group of students have tremendous value on a campus. They provide places where students can feel they belong, connect to others with similar experiences, and collectively address institutional barriers to their success.

Yet centers, initiatives, and even analytics software aimed at retaining groups of students miss the mark when it comes to getting more students to graduation day. This is because no group is at greater risk than any other group. The group does not progress towards a degree. The group does not take calculus, or chemistry, or fail to find a tutor at a critical moment late in the semester. And the group does not leave. These experiences fall to individual students who are infinitely varied and unique, regardless of particular characteristics they may have that place part of who they are within a URM or low-income or first-gen group.

Our fixation, whether as institutions or as advisors, on single characteristic retention strategies prevents us from addressing the holistic individual needs of each student. Everything that each and every one of our theories about student retention or attrition assert, suggests that for each student, the reason(s) for staying or leaving are unique. The needs they have, for support and challenge, from the institution are unique. The response to retaining each student, on some level, must also be individualized and unique. Thus, if we focus on each individual, who they are and who they want to be, then we can move the retention needle for that student. These students add up, and suddenly the needle for the group moves.

This is the work, most critically, of academic advisors. Yet all of us, whether faculty, staff, students, even legislators can assist by picking up some of the following techniques.

When campuses have an advising requirement for all students, and advisors who are well trained to work with students to identify their strengths, articulate and address challenges, and seek support from campus resources, they have two to three retention interventions a year. Multiply that times two or three for programs that require more than once a term advising. These one-on-one sessions can be conversations about who the whole student is, and who that student wants to be. It becomes a relationship that is about helping the student learn that which will help them succeed at our institutions and beyond.

If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But, if we overestimate him . . . we promote him to what he really can be.” – Viktor Frankl

To make the above quote more inclusive in today’s context, if we take a person, an individual, as they really are, we make them worse. But if we overestimate them, we promote them to what they really can be. If we approach advising a student with the goal of getting them a class schedule, then we make the interaction about getting a class schedule, and as such, make the student less than who they are as a whole individual. We make the student just someone who needs a class schedule. But, if we approach advising with the belief that the student is someone who can, and will, profoundly change the world, then the advising discussion becomes about more than classes. And, the student not only persists, they learn, they grow, they graduate. Then, the retention needle moves.

And how do academic advisors do this work?

  • Treat the advising appointment like a class, with an enrollment of one. Have desired learning outcomes. Take time at the start of each workday, one that will undoubtedly be filled with appointment after appointment, and prepare an advising lesson plan for each appointment. Be prepared with topics to discuss, questions to ask, things to assess. Granted, the student may have their own agenda for the meeting, and there may be a need to adjust as the meeting happens. But, preparing in advance helps structure the appointment so that the student gets more than just an answer to a question, a form signed, or a class schedule.
  • Build rapport. At the start of appointment, do not ask “how can I help you today?” Part of building rapport is also about establishing that the advising relationship is a shared responsibility between student and advisor. Try instead, “what do we need to accomplish today?” Give the student the ownership over their own education. While it is important that the advisor articulate what they think needs to be discussed, it is the back and forth that establishes institutional support and care.
  • Actively listen. Let the student complete their question or thought before even beginning to formulate a response. The moment we start thinking about our response, we are no longer actively listening to the student. Students need to know our campuses make space for them.
  • Ask questions. Ask who they are, who they want to be, what they want to accomplish. The more we learn, the more we can collaboratively chart a path forward for the student’s growth, even in the face of challenge.
  • Detour into immediate personal concerns, do not derail. Students need their advisors to acknowledge factors in their lives—family, work, finances, relationships—that adversely impact academic success. They also need us to bring them back to their academic goals, and how to reach them.
  • Be sticky when it comes to referrals. Yes, the campus is filled with experts who can help students with mental health, food insecurity, financial aid, academic subject expertise. And yes, part of our job is to get them to those experts. Here be a GPS system rather than a paper map. Do not send the student away without guidance on what questions to ask, what goals to have for that visit, and knowledge that their advisor is going to expect them to let you know what they learned. Like any good GPS, give them the reverse direction feature to lead them back.

See the whole student for who they are and help them get themselves to where they want to go. Do this, and move the retention needle for that student by helping them to persist. Doing that for each student will help move the retention needle for the group. And it will be done without actually thinking about the group, or retention.

David B. Spight
NACADA Past President, 2015-2016

Cite this article using APA style as: Spight, D. (2019, December). Moving the retention needle one individual at a time. Academic Advising Today, 42(4). [insert url here] 


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.