Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action

Barbara Stephens finds few clear pointers for the UK in the sobering tale of American dropout rates

July 26, 2012

Vincent Tinto is frequently referenced in discussions about student retention and success in higher education, and he starts by setting out his credentials - 36 years of research into the field, plus a groundbreaking book, Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition (1983), which sought to demonstrate the links between an institution's academic and social environment and the success of its students. This led to research on effective institutional action, which in turn has informed much of the work on student retention and success in the UK. Indeed, Tinto gave a virtual presentation at the Higher Education Academy conference on the What Works? project in March.

I therefore approached this book with a great deal of interest. Tinto begins by setting out his objective - to suggest how his research and that of others can be brought together in a framework for institutional action. His premise is that to date, institutional actions have been primarily focused on the periphery of institutional activity, whereas to be really effective they need to be focused on the classroom. He specifically says that the book's target audience is not just the research community but also academic faculty members and administrators.

However, a psychological barrier for British readers aiming to learn from Tinto's experience is that some of the US statistics he quotes on student retention and completion are quite shocking from the UK perspective. Politicians, the media and the higher education sector in this country agonised when the Higher Education Statistics Agency reported a drop in students progressing from their first to their second years from 92.9 per cent to 92.6 per cent in 2007: here, Tinto reports data indicating that just 76.8 per cent of students in US public universities and 79.1 per cent of those in private not-for-profit institutions progressed.

Numbers are equally low for completions - Tinto cites statistics showing that barely half of students in four-year colleges in the US gain a bachelor's degree in six years, and only 63 per cent do so at all. Community or two-year colleges perform even more poorly, with only 40 per cent of students achieving a bachelor's degree, associate degree or certificate.

It may well be that there are unexpected factors at play that affect these statistics, but unless you are very knowledgeable about the vagaries of the US sector, it is difficult to identify them. Tinto assumes that readers will understand the filters affecting the acceptance of students into college, how prior attainment is judged, and the process whereby students select their major subjects after joining college. The process of credit accumulation appears to be much closer to the model used by The Open University than other UK institutions, allowing students to spread their study over a longer time period, as is the reference to students being able to commence study in the spring of each year as well as the autumn. All of this makes it hard for readers to judge the comparability of the UK and US experience.

After the initial overview, Tinto identifies and discusses four main themes for institutional action: managing expectations; support; assessment and feedback; and involvement. He also makes suggestions regarding the administrative action an institution might take to promote student retention and success, and there are some interesting case study examples and thoughts here. Certainly the work he cites on the first-year student experience and on the integration of academic experience with other forms of support has already been emulated by many UK universities.

Although this book is addressed to staff and administrators, nearly half of it is taken up with appendices and references, including 46 pages of the latter, leaving the text itself much slighter than it first appears. The references are, without exception, US-based, and there is no mention that I could find of the important work that has been carried out on retention in the UK and in countries such as Canada.

The comments on the back cover, and Tinto's own preface, suggest this is a book that can be used by institutions to improve their practice, but I would not recommend it for this purpose to UK institutions. However, it does serve as an interesting commentary on the current state of student retention and success in the US, a good tool to demonstrate to politicians that the UK's higher education sector delivers value for money compared with the US, and a useful reference for researchers.

Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action

By Vincent Tinto

University of Chicago Press

283pp, £22.50

ISBN 9780226804521

Published 11 May 2012

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