President Christine M. Riordan on making student success and retention a priority.

The following was first published in the AGB’s quarterly e-newsletter.

In a U.S. presidential election marked more by dissent than accord, most candidates can agree on two points on the issue of college costs. First, college is often unaffordable to the lower-income Americans who need it most and, two, that those who have access to loans are often strapped with staggering debt.

But there’s a third problem that gets less attention: the crippling effect of debt on students who drop out before earning a diploma. It’s problem enough that rich and poor students enroll in college at different rates; it’s a crisis that they graduate at such disparate rates.

According to research by the University of Michigan, only about one in four disadvantaged students who’d hoped to get a bachelor’s degree had done so, compared to two-thirds of students from more high-income families.

The reasons students drop out can be surprisingly minor. According to a new report from the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, a just-in-time grant of even a few hundred dollars can keep many students in danger of dropping out before graduation from doing so.  

The report, “Foiling the Dropout Trap,” describes how 10 colleges are using modest “completion grants” to help students stay enrolled. It includes my own alma mater, Georgia State University, which has boosted its retention rate 22 points with a campus-wide commitment to student success and more than a dozen strategic initiatives, including a microgrant program covering small financial shortfalls – an average of only $900 – impacting students’ ability to pay tuition and fees.

Similarly, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Graduation Funds program offers microgrants to students nearing graduation, but not yet registered for their final semester, who owe less than $5,000. The program intentionally focuses on good-but-not-great students (GPA of a 3.0 or less), since higher-achieving students tend to find merit-based funding.

Other colleges, like the City University of New York, help pick up the tab for incidentals like subway passes, textbooks or to cover a shortfall between college costs and financial aid. The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) doubled the three-year graduation rate and increased the share of students enrolling in a four-year college.

At a federal level, the Obama administration has called for new investments in the federal Pell Grant program that would hasten students on their path to a degree by allowing full-time students to take courses year-round and provide an “on-track bonus” for students who take 15 credits per semester.

But financial investment must be part of a larger commitment to building a culture of student success.

Today’s students, particularly those from underserved populations, face challenges that go beyond the merely economic. The decision to attend college is life changing for any student. Most find the transition a little disorienting. They’re grappling with a more challenging curriculum, navigating a new social world and, for many, facing life on one’s own for the first time. Many balance work and family obligations with their new academic commitments. In increasing numbers, they come to us with anxiety or depressive illness, with learning differences, with their own personal challenges to overcome.

For this reason, most of us have developed “early alert” programs to identify the students who may be struggling to adjust. Others are experimenting with more penetrating interventions. For example, Zane State University, a community college in Ohio, raised retention rates from 77 to 82 percent from 2006 to 2009 by introducing “intrusive advising.” Letters and e-mails would invite students to meet with an advisor to discuss ways to improve their chances of staying in school. When that wouldn’t work, the advisors would show up in class and ask students to meet in person.

Knowing that many kids – particularly those who are first-generation students– can struggle to navigate college bureaucracy, other universities are developing programs to simply remind students to complete necessary paperwork.

Here at Adelphi, we’re proud of our own programs that pave the way for a successful college experience. Because some students’ potential for academic achievement isn’t reflected in their grades and test scores, we offer a one-year intensive program, called the General Studies Learning Community, which combines liberal arts courses, presentations and off-campus learning with individual counseling and tutoring. Students who complete the program – and over 80 percent of them do – are an example of what good can come from high expectations, a purposeful curriculum, dedicated faculty and personalized attention.

Because one in every 68 children in the United States has autism spectrum disorder, we developed the Bridges to Adelphi program to offer the highest level of individualized academic, social and vocational support to students with neuro-social and other non-verbal disorders. Every student in the fee-based program has a support team including an academic coach, learning strategist and peer mentor. They provide academic and social support, working with students on problem solving, executive functioning, time management as well as academic assignments and research.

Because college can feel especially overwhelming to students with learning differences or ADHD, our Learning Resource Program – one of the first in the country — offers a structured and highly individualized approach to teaching academic and life skills. With the help of confidential counseling, students strengthen social relationships, build self-awareness and reduce anxiety. An integrated staff of educators and social workers – one staff member for every nine students – ensures access to critical resources and support.  

Despite some recent headlines, I believe most colleges can and do try to help students make it to graduation. Just because only 59 percent of American college students graduate doesn’t mean that the other 41 percent of students simply don’t belong there.  

With so many innovative new ways to support those who may be struggling financially, emotionally or academically, we have no excuses in not educating, empowering and supporting our students from enrollment to commencement.

Christine M. Riordan, Ph.D., is president at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York and an internationally recognized expert in leadership development, diversity and inclusion, and team performance.

For further information, please contact:

Todd Wilson
Strategic Communications Director 
p – 516.237.8634
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