Do We Have it All Wrong? Where Access & Retention Collide

By Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D. President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently released a report updating data on student retention and persistence. Unfortunately, the news was not good, as the fall-to-fall retention rate (e.g., freshman-to-sophomore) fell 1.2 percent between 2009 and 2012 from 69.9 to 68.7 percent. Although one percent does not sound like very much, in a national context, that accounts for an additional 37,000 students who chose not to show up for their second year of studies.

This is most interesting because it can be argued that we—as policymakers, institutions, and as citizens—have never done more to try and engage students, from a policy standpoint and a service standpoint, to persist in higher education. And when we thought we might be doing better; alas, we find that we are not.




Simple logic would suggest this means one of only a few things. First, we haven’t done enough in light of demographic and economic trends to ameliorate attrition issues for first generation and other students. Second, what we have done politically and practically is largely ineffective. Or third, that our system is simply not able to be more efficient. And yes, surely it is a combination of all three.

Regarding the first scenario, clearly we have not done enough to help students prepare and stay in higher education. While we have opened up the doors of higher education to virtually all youth, we haven’t done so in a way that has been largely effective. One needs only look at remediation data to understand that historically underrepresented students, including and especially low-income students, have many more at-risk attributes than other students, resulting in higher attrition rates. The graphic below, depicting data from the Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) study between 2003-04 and 2008-09, found that students who have only one risk factor* have a 33 percent less change of attaining a bachelor’s degree than someone with zero risk factors. As well, 56 percent of BPS students will not graduate from any postsecondary institution within six years compared to non-risk students. For those students with multiple risk factors, the data get exponentially worse.


Thus, clearly we are not doing enough for the type of students we are admitting to higher education. For us to do better, we obviously need to do more and different things than we currently do if we hope to increase success rates.

Second, we need to look closely at what we already do for students and determine the efficacy of those policies and practices. The remedial/developmental issue continues to provide a good example of our challenges. Almost all colleges, to a degree, deal with the challenge of development course work, especially outside of selective colleges. As in the above graphic, we understand that students with multiple development courses have a very low chance of success. As well, most students take these courses with no credit awarded. Thus, they are essentially doing Grade 13, to a degree, because none of it is counting other than an ex post facto admissions requirement. And until they pass those courses, they won’t be able to enroll in the requisite freshman courses necessary for degree. It’s like starting a race several paces behind the fastest sprinters. Thus, we need to look very closely at what we are currently doing in our admissions, financial aid, and student services practices at institutions. Do they work? If not, why?

The third item is arguably the biggest factor in this issue. Our system is not designed for efficiency. It could be, but to do that we would essentially throw our access policies out the window. The consideration of access ultimately makes the system less efficient by adding in students who have much deeper issues, academically and socially, than other students. The human condition is not perfect. People change their minds and their personal situations alter. Regardless, the system can never be perfect. But add in risk factors and it becomes extraordinarily inefficient, as the BPS data clearly suggest.

Perhaps we need to think of a new admissions criterion for all students. The truth, which is seemingly unfair, is that students graduate from high school at much different levels, then we load them all into the exact same funnels as freshman students. The only deviation from this theme is that we actually do filter students by college selection criteria. Freshman students at Oxford are not the same as freshman students at many public colleges, for example. That’s a reality not arguable by fact.

Most people are against a tiered system of education, even though that is exactly what we have had for the past century. The tiers are evident by sector (public vs. private), type (four-year, two-year, less than two-year), by residential vs. commuter, and even online vs. traditional instructional models. Each of these tiers breaks down by income and educational legacy.

These tiers will not recede. If anything, they will become more entrenched and perhaps we will develop even more tiers in the future that separate opportunity.

The fight to reduce tiers is not one worth fighting. Perhaps we are at a stage in our policy development that, instead of fighting for complete equity at all levels, we cast our equity effort on the long-term goals, and not at each level. For instance, maybe it is more appropriate not to let some students, those who are at-risk, into a different tier until they are proven. Just like Virginia’s two-year/four-year articulation agreements, that once students have an earned AA, they matriculate cleanly to the state university system. These students are proven; their risk levels are low. Perhaps students are better taking their development courses, or whatever can be used to replace or enhance developmental courses, at another venue, much like what New York did years ago. They simply stated that developmental courses would not be part of the university system any more. People balked that this was anti-access. It was not. It was prudent public policy for a multi-tiered public system.

From my vantage point, it is clear that we need to think about higher education in a new manner. Our four-year universities should not have the low retention and graduation rates that they do. These are our “higher education” institutions. We shouldn’t be losing 35 percent of these students. Similarly, we shouldn’t be losing two-thirds of our two-year public institutions, but, for what it’s worth, inefficiency is better at the lower, less-expensive levels of education. Truth be told, more of our students lower-income and first generation students are better advised to be starting in a two-year or other scenario that allows them to acculturate and prepare for the four-year situation at a significantly lower cost. No, this is not for everyone, but somehow there has to be a cut line from what we presently do, because it doesn’t work. We can’t afford it. Nor can students afford to pay so much not to complete.

I talk often about the common core state standards for education. I am a proponent because they provide a pathway to college success for all students. The standards do not solve the issue of how to make one’s way down the pathway, necessarily, but the standards at least point to mileposts for teachers, students, and administers. Ambiguity is not an effective practice for college preparation and access. Rigor and clarity are.

*Risk factors for this study include part-time enrollment, delayed entry to college, not having a standard HS diploma, having children, being a single parent, being an independent students, and working full time while enrolled.




About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at
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2 Responses to Do We Have it All Wrong? Where Access & Retention Collide

  1. Much of what you say seems quite valid. However, one point where I differ: my experience indicates that the very students you want to confine to public 2-year postsecondary environments are the ones who most need the environment normally only provided on a 4-year, residential campus — easy access to libraries and other academic resources, opportunities to easily interact with others engaged in similar pursuits, quieter/ less conflicted arenas in which to study, easy access to other students for study groups and socialization in a student-centered environment. All of these environmental supports contribute to student achievement and more likely retention, particularly for students who come from markedly different backgrounds. Yet, rarely are they found in a 2-year, commuter campus environment. To provide more 2-year, residential campuses is of course one answer. However, that means then the over all cost of the experience goes up in cost so we are back to square one. Nonetheless, these more amorphous factors must be paid attention to in order to ultimately resolve this conundrum of access and retention.

    • You raise a real important issue, Daniel. The problem of trying to come up with a legitimate solution to our higher ed and societal woes is that the most rational solution does damage or does not provide equity. But I argue we can’t get equity—-regardless. So, yes, the people who could blossom out of a residential situation more like or exactly like a four-year institution do not get it. Most of those who do, drop out anyway because of all the factors that we clearly understand. But we can’t cover the cost of such inefficiency the way we have. Nor should we, but your point is very well taken. Perhaps there is another way… I’m just not smart enough to know what it is.

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