Squishy and Stubborn Retention at a Mid-Atlantic Historically Black Institution

A study of a Mid Atlantic Historically Black Institution (MAHBI) examines cognitive, social, and institutional factors to identify those that are most critical in contributing to the steady decline of the rate of student retention for this institution and others with similar characteristics. Secondary source data pertaining to three cohorts (i.e., 2,854 students) of first-time, full-time students were used and a regression analysis was preformed to determine the likelihood of student retention for the variables in the matrix. While the Odds-ratio analysis confirmed significant potential for increasing retention by increasing the amount of financial aid, in-state tuition status, fall semester GPA, and taking Math 101 (i.e., Intermediate Algebra), a 1-point increase in the spring semester GPA for a student at the MAHBI increases student chances of being retained by 453%. These results have serious implications for student academic support services at the MAHBI.

Student retention or persistence in higher education continues to attract the interest and attention of many researchers, educators, and the public. It is not surprising that amount of financial aid has a significant effect on retention given that over 80% of the MAHBI’s students receive one form of financial aid or another. This factor indicates that for every $1,000 increase in financial aid amount the odds for retention increase by between 6.5% and 29.4% In-state tuition status and living on campus have significant positive predictive effects on retention. Gender plays an important role in predicting spring retention rates for men, while race for White/Caucasian students increases the odds of not being retained. Counterintuitive results included the fact that students with high High School GPA (i.e., 1-unit increase) and high SAT Composite Score (i.e., increases of 100 units) were less likely to be retained, suggesting that such students may leave MAHBI for other institutions that may have been their preferred choices in the first place.

Based on this study, it is clear that the strongest predictor of student persistence/second-year retention for the MAHBI is spring semester cumulative GPA. Students who improved their fall semester cumulative GPA are more likely to feel academically integrated with the MAHBI environment and if they live in campus accommodation they might also be socially integrated. In addressing the MAHBI retention issue, close attention should be given to the academic support services unit to help students enhance their cumulative GPA, especially during the spring semester. Other important factors uncovered by this study include financial aid, amount of financial aid, and whether students’ needs are being met. For students who are economically (i.e., 47% as measured by the Expected Family Contribution) and educationally (i.e., 50% first generation college students) disadvantaged, the amount of funds available to them can be a deal breaker for their persistence. This study helps the MAHBI administrators, faculty, and staff to identify factors on which their interventions should focus. If current interventions are not producing the intended outcome of increasing student retention, a careful review of the interventions should be undertaken and appropriate enhancements made that take into consideration the MAHBI’s specific environment and other circumstances. Meanwhile, it bears note that the models in this study have a high percentage of correct predictions (i.e., between 66% for fall 2005 cohort and 79.4% for fall 2004 cohort) and provides a solid basis for designing or strengthening interventions to address the elusive retention problem at MAHBI and other similar HBCUs.

While this study has provided many insights on addressing the retention problem at MAHBI, future studies are needed to investigate further the effects of factors on retention presented in this study that have been found counterintuitive. The counterintuitive results in our study go against conventional wisdom and therefore strongly support the need for further investigation of retention factors at MAHBI. In addition, institutional and social characteristics that were omitted such as parents’ educational attainment, student commitment to the institution, household income, student engagement in activities that support academic success, student satisfaction with academic and other services provided by the institution to support student goal achievement, etc., should be included in the models for future studies to enhance confidence in study findings. Future studies should also track student cohorts on a longitudinal basis to insure that students who do not return for their second year are genuine dropouts and not stop-outs.

A related question to the retention issue for future research which was not the subject of this study is how the graduation rate at MAHBI can grow and be sustained. Retention and graduation rates will continue to be strong measures on an institution’s quality, credibility, and financial stability and will, therefore, continue to attract interest among postsecondary institutions, researchers, educators, students, and the public. The ultimate goal for all these stakeholders is student personal development and graduation to build a better career, a better life, and a better future for the student.

Reference to the full article:

Nyirenda, S. M., & Gong, T. (2010).  The squishy and stubborn problem of retention: A study of a Mid Atlantic historically Black institution with a Land-Grant mission. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 11(4), 529-550.


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