In the United States, college freshmen have about a 68 percent retention rate, meaning that about 3 out of every 10 students doesn’t return to the same university for their second year. Some move on to other schools, while others simply leave higher education altogether, permanently or for a short period. But universities are, understandably, concerned with retaining as many freshmen as possible.
According to a study by researchers at Michigan State University, which has a 90-percent freshman retention rate, the secret to keeping those students around is helping them fit in.
“We found that students can develop a sense of fitting in before they even walk into class, and that feeling is important down the line. It leads to the students feeling like their skills meet academic demands and also leads to them wanting to stick around,” said study lead author Joshua Prasad.
Based on studies at orientation and the end of their first semester, researchers found that students who felt like they were a good fit at MSU were more likely to feel the same at the end of their first semester.
They found that this was especially true for minority students, who might have issues trusting in universities that have historically been dominated by cisgender, white, or male students. What seems to work for MSU is to try and build “neighborhoods” in their residence halls, with a variety of support staff who can help students make sense of the college experience and make sure that they feel welcome.
Retaining students is about more than just academics. The social aspects of the college experience cannot be ignored. The researchers found that the students with the most “determination and grit,” the students who were most capable of overcoming challenges, were more inclined to feel like they fit in and to stick around, regardless of their academic performance in or before college.
“The practical implication here is that universities that rely solely on the standard metrics of academic success for new students, such as grade point average and entrance exam scores, might be missing out on the very important individual factors of motivation and determination,” Prasad said.