A prevailing topic in higher education—particularly student affairs and academic services—is retention. We ask ourselves, first, “how do we keep students engaged and enrolled at our institutions?” and, second, “how do we keep students, in general, engaged in higher education when degrees alone are no longer a sure investment in a successful future?” Taken together these questions form what we call retention. Many institutions and many more programs within those institutions have pursued a diverse range of approaches to retention. Like all initiatives, some succeed and some fail. What many institutions miss is that the most effective retention is longitudinal and holistic. That is retention begins when students are recruited and continues until they graduate and retention involves all aspects of a student’s experience. Based on my experience in student affairs and specifically in housing and residence life, I believe that retention requires a team approach to identify, refer, and intervene in the experiences of students at risk of attrition.
Where do I start? I am a residence life professional: in the most idealistic terms my career is about creating and sustaining safe and comfortable living communities for students. In reality residence life folks wear a number of hats regardless of the size or nature of their institution. We are crisis managers, we work with facilities to maintain our buildings, we help students transition to, through, and out of college, and we educate students on living with others. Our role though has one unique that the majority of our colleagues will never experience: we live in the buildings in which our students live. I write this essay in an on-campus apartment; I passed students an hour ago while doing my laundry. That access and proximity to our students presents interesting possibilities for retention. This is where I start.
Once an institution identifies the first group of at-risk students—students at risk of attrition that is—and as they continue to add to that list one of their first partners should be their residence life staff. They will inevitably find, first, that we already know about these students. They are the ones that have been on our radar for conduct situations, risky behavior, roommate conflicts, or just the general feeling that they are around our buildings far more than a student who is going to class regularly. We likely have some idea what is going on in their lives and if we don’t know, our RAs know. Why isn’t Student A involved in student activities? He is working a part time job off campus. How do I know? He missed two floor meetings and he gave me a note from his boss. Why does Student B seem so unengaged in her classes even though her entrance profile suggested she’d be a top student? She founded and is running two startups out of her room. Before you ask, that’s a violation of our policy and I’m sending her to our entrepreneurial center as part of her sanctions.
We know these students because we live with these students. We see them at their best and frequently at their worst.
Definitely there will be students on our ‘at risk list’ who we have never encountered. We’ll say it: we’re not actually sure who they are and are surprised someone with that name lives in our building. However, I can check in with that student as easily at 3pm as I can at 9pm—though know that I usually turn into a pumpkin around 5pm so let’s agree to keep the 9pm check-ins to a minimum. RAs can check-in on students as peers, perhaps use the opportunity to get to know these residents. If an RA encounters obstacles professional staff can work with the student. A major strength of any residence life program is our layers.