AAT banner

Voices of the Global Community


Brian Stanley, Multicultural Concerns Commission Chair

It is well known that retention of every student is simply not possible. As academic advisors we understand that, for some students, transferring or stopping-out is a legitimate strategy for attaining long term personal or professional success. Yet, on many campuses, talk of retention focuses on retaining “all” students. As a result, some colleges have developed overly-broad retention strategies that disjoint campus units and ignore the role of identity in the retention of at-risk ethnic and cultural minorities. A more effective alternative is the development of a focused retention framework that utilizes assessment to identify those most at risk for early institutional departure and then seeks to develop culturally relevant programmatic interventions for their success.

Before I continue, I need to stress the importance of assessment in any well structured retention program. Quantitative and qualitative assessments of student needs and outcomes are key in the identification of those most at-risk, tracking changes in at-risk populations, and providing important benchmarking information for evaluating the strengths and potential growth areas for any retention program. If your retention program does not do assessment then your institution probably is not doing retention as well as it could be.

Swail, Redd, and Perna (2003) suggest that student retention is the result of an interaction between cognitive, social, and institutional factors that impact students positively or negatively. Successful students are able to attain equilibrium between these variables.

Cognitive factors are the intelligence, knowledge, and academic abilities students bring to the collegiate environment (p. 78). Cognitive factors are central to students’ abilities to comprehend and complete the academic portion of the college curriculum, understand their experiences, and develop and utilize effective decision-making and problem solving capacities. Social factors encompass the broad array of issues that allow or inhibit student integration into the social fabric of the institution and include related issues such as cultural fit, peer group influence, career goals, educational legacy, and coping skills. Institutional factors include the institution’s ability to provide students with academic and social support throughout the collegiate experience. Institutional factors are equivocated with cognitive and social factors due to the importance of institutional support in student decisions to persist through degree attainment. The institution’s ability to leverage the cognitive and social services needed to support students through their college experience is critical in helping students compensate for cognitive or social weaknesses (p.79). Within this model, it is important to note that students with serious deficiencies in both cognitive and social skills are the most at-risk and will need the most institutional support to persist to degree completion (Swail et. al., 2003, p. 81).

What does successful institutional support look like for at-risk cultural and ethnic minorities? Tierney (2000) posits that the “negotiation of identity in academe as central to educational success”(p. 219). The challenge is not for students to fit into an alien culture at the expense of their own; rather, it is to challenge the organizational culture to adapt to students’ cultures by developing “…ways in which an individual’s identity is affirmed, honored, and incorporated into the organization’s culture” (p. 219). To accomplish this, Tierney (2000) proposes that retention and achievement programs should (1) develop innovative programs and activities that seek to affirm and validate individual student cultural identities (Collaborative Relations of Power); (2) develop contextualized social and academic activities which create connections between home, community, and schooling (Home, Community, and Schooling Connections); (3) Be locally grounded in student experience and reality, thus providing students with an opportunity to integrate their local lives into the fabric of the institution while challenging them to use their university education to make positive change in their home and local environments (Local Definitions of Identity); (4) foster a spirit of academic excellence within target populations by maintaining high academic expectations of student performance (challenge over remediation); (5) have strong, validating, holistic support structures which, instead of narrowly focusing on any real or perceived skill gap, emphasize the development and utilization of academic support structures (formal and informal) which view students, especially at-risk students, as individuals with the capacity for academic success (p. 218 - 224).

The research completed by Tierney (2000) and Swail, Redd, and Perna, (2003) provide important insight into effective retention. First, effective retention is collaborative insofar as it requires a strategic alignment of institutional resources for the purposes of retention success of those most at-risk of early departure. Second, effective retention is conscious of the impact of race, class, and culture in the life of the at-risk student and actively seeks positive ways to validate and integrate culture into institutional support. Finally, effective retention is assessment driven and evaluates programmatic activities for alignment with assessed student needs.

Brian Stanley
Saint Mary's College of California


Swail, S. W., Redd, E. K., & Perna, W. L. (Eds.). (2003). Retaining minority students in higher education (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report). San Francisco: Wiley Publishers.

Tierney, W. G. (2000). Power, identity, and the dilemma of college student departure. In J. M. Braxton (Ed.), Reworking the Student Departure Puzzle (pp. 213 - 234). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Cite this article using APA style as: Stanley, B. (2004, September). Who are you seeking to retain and why? Academic Advising Today, 27(3). [insert url here]


There are currently no comments, be the first to post one!

Post Comment

Only registered users may post comments.
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.