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Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action

Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action

by Vincent Tinto

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Even as the number of students attending college has more than doubled in the past forty years, it is still the case that nearly half of all college students in the United States will not complete their degree within six years. It is clear that much remains to be done toward improving student success. For more than twenty years, Vincent Tinto’s pathbreaking


Even as the number of students attending college has more than doubled in the past forty years, it is still the case that nearly half of all college students in the United States will not complete their degree within six years. It is clear that much remains to be done toward improving student success. For more than twenty years, Vincent Tinto’s pathbreaking book Leaving College has been recognized as the definitive resource on student retention in higher education. Now, with Completing College, Tinto offers administrators a coherent framework with which to develop and implement programs to promote completion.

Deftly distilling an enormous amount of research, Tinto identifies the essential conditions enabling students to succeed and continue on within institutions. Especially during the early years, he shows that students thrive in settings that pair high expectations for success with structured academic, social, and financial support, provide frequent feedback and assessments of their performance, and promote their active involvement with other students and faculty. And while these conditions may be worked on and met at different institutional levels, Tinto points to the classroom as the center of student education and life, and therefore the primary target for institutional action.

Improving retention rates continues to be among the most widely studied fields in higher education, and Completing College carefully synthesizes the latest research and, most importantly, translates it into practical steps that administrators can take to enhance student success.

Editorial Reviews

John Bean
“The best compendium of information on organizational development related to colleges and universities and their students around. It is thoughtful, thorough, and focused on a limited number of areas where a huge number of factors are involved.”
David Kalsbeek
“A valuable, useful guide for institutional dialogue and planning around student retention. Completing College will be welcomed by countless retention committees struggling with the magnitude of their charge and wondering where to start.”

Kay McClenney
“In Completing College, Vincent Tinto lays out in clear and compelling terms the actions that colleges and universities can and must take to ensure that larger numbers of their students succeed. The improvement agenda must be about fixing institutions, not fixing students; and Tinto describes the conditions necessary—conditions that institutions can intentionally create. Perhaps most importantly, Tinto notes that colleges typically have arrayed their retention initiatives around the margins of the institution, thus forfeiting the enormous potential that lies in the purposeful redesign of students’ classroom experiences. Here, in a timely and concrete fashion, he offers evidence-based strategies that focus institutional and faculty energy where it matters most.”

The Review of Higher Education - Sosanya Jones
"Overall, Tinto accomplishes exactly what he set out to do, moving beyond theory to a call and plan for effective institutional action. And while there are no hard and fast solutions, ultimately Tinto knows that the field of higher education needs an action-oriented approach toward improving student retention. Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action delivers one that should not be ignored."
Journal of College Student Development
"In Completing College, Vincent Tinto offers a framework for organizing institutional policies and practices that the research on educational attainment and his experience with different types of colleges and universities suggest can positively influence student persistence and degree attainment. . . . Tightly constructed and lucidly crafted, the book opens with a well-researched brief on why college matters to both individuals and the larger society followed by a succinct overview of the four institutional conditions Tinto asserts lead to completing a program of study. An informative text for higher education and student affairs graduate programs."

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University of Chicago Press
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The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-80452-1

Chapter One


There is little question that higher education pays. On average, people who go to college and complete a bachelor's degree earn over one million dollars more during their lifetime than do those who do not go to college (Baum and Payea 2004, 2005; Baum and Ma 2007). On a range of outcomes—from personal development, health, and the like—evidence abounds that college graduates fare far better than nongraduates. Furthermore, the gap in earnings, and thus the penalty for not going to college, appears to be increasing (Baum and Payea 2005).

What matters is not simply attending college but completing a degree, especially a four-year degree. Starting but not finishing college yields little earnings benefit in relation to those who do not. The gap in lifetime earnings between these two groups is small, only about $250,000 (Baum and Ma 2007, appendix A, figure 1.2). In other words, the gap in lifetime earnings between those who complete at least a college degree and those who start college but do not graduate is more than $750,000. This is roughly the same as the difference in earnings between those with a bachelor's degree and those with an associate's degree. People with an associate's degree, though earning over their working lifetime about $354,000 more than people who only complete high school, earn approximately $650,000 less than college graduates. This does not mean that going to a two-year college and completing an associate's degree is not valuable in other ways. We know, for instance, that attaining an associate's degree positively influences the attainment of the next generation (Attewell and Lavin 2007a). In terms of a person's working lifetime earnings, however, it pays to complete a four-year college degree, and it does so now more than ever.

The benefits of education accrue to our nation as a whole. On a range of issues—from voting, health, unemployment, poverty, rates of incarceration, and school readiness of children, to rates of volunteerism—it is evident that the costs to our society of not providing higher education to our citizens are considerable, though the benefits of an education are many (Baum and Payee 2004; Baum and Ma 2007; Carnevale and Rose 2011). The same can be said of the benefits of college education to our standing in the increasingly competitive global marketplace. A college-educated workforce is critical to our nation's ability to remain competitive; but where once we were world leaders in the proportion of our population between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five holding a college certificate or degree, this is no longer the case. By most estimates we now are rapidly falling behind many other nations in our ability to produce college graduates (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education 2006; Tierney 2006). Given current demographic trends, there are danger signs aplenty that unless we do a better job in graduating more of our students from college, we will slip even farther behind.

* Student Retention in Higher Education

It is little wonder, then, that over the past several decades federal and state governments and a range of organizations have invested heavily in programs to increase access to higher education. But as access has more than doubled from nearly 9 million students in 1980 to almost 20 million in 2011, overall college completion rates have increased only slightly, if at all (Bound, Lovenheim, and Turner 2009; Radford, Berkner, Wheeless, and Shepherd 2010; Supiano 2011). Barely more than one-half of all four-year college students in the United States earn their bachelor's degrees within six years from their initial institution (Nagda 2003). Less than one-third of community college students earn an associate's degree or certificate from their initial institution over a six-year period. Some students will take longer than six years to earn their degrees from their initial institution and others will transfer to another institution to do so. The result is that among four-year college entrants nearly 63% will eventually earn their four-year degrees and approximately 40% of community college entrants, if that, will earn a bachelor's degree or an associate's degree or certificate (see table A10).

Not all students graduate from their initial institution at the same rate. Data from a six-year longitudinal study of students who began higher education in 1995 indicate that women earn bachelor's degrees more frequently than men (21.9% versus 19.6%); white students (22.6%) and students from Asia or the Pacific Island (33.1%) more frequently than African American (14.0%), Hispanic (13.7%), and American Indian / Alaska Native students (8.8%); high-income students more frequently than low-income students (42.0% versus 19.0%); students from college-educated families more frequently than first-generation college students (37.0% versus 12.2%); and students whose high-school grade-point average is greater than 3.25 more frequently than those whose grade-point average is less than 2.25 (29.6% versus 7.5%) (Nagda 2003). Furthermore, only 7.5% of students who are eligible for Pell grants—that is, students who come from low-income backgrounds and are also the first in their generation to attend college—obtain a bachelor's degree within six years from their initial institution, as against 41.1% of those students who are in neither of those categories.

The time taken to earn a degree also varies widely. Of the approximately 55% of those students who complete their bachelor's degree from their initial institution, only about 33% (or 60% of all degree earners) do so within the standard four-year time frame (see Nagda 2003, tables 7.1–7.6). The remaining 22% (or 40% of all degree earners) do so in the following two years. Beyond the fact that some degrees, such as in engineering, require more than four years of full-time study, it is evident that many students take considerably more than four years to earn a four-year degree.

Similarly, rates of attrition vary over time. On average, the percentage of beginning students who leave their initial institution before graduating reflects the well-established finding that institutional attrition is generally highest in the first year and declines thereafter (see table A3). For four-year colleges and universities, whether public or private, 38% of those who leave will do so in their first year, and 29% in their second year. Since much of the attrition in the second year reflects what happened or did not happen in the first year, it is understandable that many institutions allocate a sizable portion of their scarce resources to the first year of college.

There are significant differences among institutions in their rates of student retention. For instance, some private universities graduate over 90% of their beginning students, while some public ones graduate fewer than 30%. That wide variation reflects in part differences both in institutional mission and in the attributes of the students admitted. Institutions that enroll wealthier students, students from college-educated families, and students who have higher high-school grades or entering test scores—in other words, colleges and universities that are more selective—have higher rates of institutional retention and graduation (Astin and Oseguera 2005; Gold and Albert 2006; Horn and Carroll 2006). But even among institutions with similar selectivity, there remains substantial variation in graduation rates (Astin 2005, p. 14). Clearly, there is more to the ability of institutions to graduate its students than is reflected in the students they admit.

However one analyzes the data, one fact remains clear. Institutional rates of four-year and two-year degree completion have not increased substantially since the 1990s (Mortenson 2009b; Radford, Berkner, Wheeless, and Shepherd 2010). Nor have overall rates at which students eventually earn their degrees (Bound, Lovenheim, and Turner 2009). At the same time, though enrollment of low-income students has grown, and the gap in access between them and more affluent students has narrowed, the gap in persistence and completion appears to have increased somewhat over the same period (Horn, Berger and Carroll 2004, table 5-B; Haycock 2006). In 1989–90, for instance, the proportion of low-income students who completed a four-year degree within five years was only 16.7%. In 1995–96 that figure fell to 15.0%. By contrast, the completion rate of four-year degrees for high-income students increased over that period from 38.4% to 41.0%. In other words, high-income students were nearly three times more likely to complete a four-year degree than were low-income students. Since fewer low-income students than high-income students even begin college, the disparity is glaring.

Need for Effective Action

Despite our nation's success in increasing access to college and reducing the gap in access between high- and low-income students, we have not yet been successful in translating the opportunity access provides into college completion, or what I refer to here as student success. That is the case is not for lack of attention or effort. Indeed, over the past twenty years, if not more, colleges and universities as well as foundations, state governments, and more recently the federal government have invested considerable resources in the development and implementation of a range of retention programs, many directed specifically at low-income and underserved students. Some institutions have been able to improve the rate at which they retain and graduate their students, but many, even those who have sought to do so, have not (Carey 2005b; Carey and Hess 2009).

There are many reasons why this is the case. One has to do with the nature of the research on student attrition, another with the character of most efforts to improve retention. Much of the research on student attrition has not been particularly useful to those in the field who seek to develop and implement programs to improve retention and completion because it assumes, incorrectly, that knowing why students leave is equivalent to knowing why students stay and succeed. The process of persistence is not the mirror image of the process of leaving. Though the two are necessarily related, understanding the reasons for leaving doesn't necessarily translate into helping students to persist (Padilla 1999). Research has also tended to focus on theoretically appealing concepts that do not easily translate into definable courses of action. Take, for instance, the concept of academic and social integration (Tinto 1975, 1993). While it may be useful for theorists to know that what is now referred to as academic and social engagement has a role to play in retention, that insight does not tell practitioners, at least not directly, what they could do to enhance academic and social engagement in their institution. Though a number of researchers have addressed the practical question of "what works" (e.g., Braxton, Hirschy, and McClendon 2004; Engstrom and Tinto 2007; Kuh, Kinzi, Schuh, Whitt, and Associates 2005; Pascarella and Terenzini 1991, 2005; Seidman 2005; and Tinto 1993, 1997; Tinto and Goodsell 1994; Tinto, Goodsell, and Russo 1993; Tinto and Russo 1994), our knowledge of effective action remains fragmented and poorly organized.

The same can be said of institutional action. Despite years of effort, institutions have yet to develop a coherent framework to guide their thinking about which actions matter most and how they should be organized and successfully implemented. Too often, institutions invest in a laundry list of actions, one disconnected from another. The result is an uncoordinated patchwork of actions whose sum impact on student retention is less than it could or should be. Moreover, and just as important, most institutional efforts have been situated at the margins of students' educational life. They have neglected the classroom, the one place on campus, perhaps only place, where the great majority of students meet the faculty and one another and engage in formal learning activities. Lest we forget, so-called traditional students, who enroll full-time in a residential college or university immediately after high school, make up only a quarter of all college students. Most students do not live on campus. A great many work while in college, especially those of low-income backgrounds, and attend part-time. Attending college is only one of many demands on their time and energies. They go to campus, attend class, and quickly leave to attend to other obligations. For them, the experience of college is primarily the experience of the classroom. Their success in college is built upon their success in the classroom.

If institutions are to significantly increase the retention and graduation of their students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, their actions must be centered on the classroom. They must focus on improving success in the classroom, particularly during the first year and lead to changes in the way classes are structured and taught and, in turn, experienced by students, especially those who have not fared well in the past. Furthermore, institutions must align those classrooms, one to another, in ways that provide students coherent pathways of courses that propel them to timely program completion.

The object of this book is to tap the knowledge we have gained from past research on student retention and completion and use it in developing a framework for institutional action that places the classroom at the center. It seeks to provide institutions not only with a systematic way of thinking about what actions they can take to increase retention and graduation, but also with a way of organizing and implementing those actions to enhance their sum impact on student success.

* A Framework for Institutional Action: The Conditions for Student Success

First, we must recognize that a college or university, once having admitted a student, has an obligation to do what it can to help the student stay and graduate. To improve retention and graduation, the institution must begin by focusing on its own behavior and establishing conditions within its walls that promote those outcomes. This does not preclude efforts beyond the campus to enhance the likelihood of success for its current and future students. Nor does it preclude efforts to recruit students who are themselves more likely to stay and graduate. For most institutions, however, the attributes of new students are largely beyond the immediate institutional control. This is not the case for conditions within colleges and universities in which students are placed. Being already the result of past institutional action, those conditions can be changed. Indeed they must be changed. The long-term improvement in student retention and graduation must begin with efforts to establish those conditions on campus that are known to promote student success. Enhanced student retention and graduation follow.

What, then, does research on student retention tell us about the conditions within colleges and universities that promote retention and graduation? Studies converge on four that are associated with enhanced student retention. These conditions, briefly described below, are expectations, support, assessment and feedback, and involvement (Tinto 2010).

Expectations. Student success is driven, in part, by what students expect of themselves. These self-expectations are shaped, in turn, by a variety of institutional actions, not the least of which have to do with the expectations the institution establishes for student performance and those the faculty establish for their students, especially in the classes they teach. Student success is directly influenced not only by the clarity and consistency of expectations but also by their level. High expectations are a condition for student success, low expectations a harbinger of failure. Simply put, no one rises to low expectations.

Support. It is one thing to hold high expectations; it is another to provide the support students need to achieve them. Without academic, social, and, in some cases, financial support, many students, especially those who enter college academically underprepared, struggle to succeed. At no time is support, especially academic support, more important than during the critical first year of college, when student success is still so much in question and still very responsive to institutional intervention. And in no place is support more needed than in the classroom where success is constructed one course at a time.


Excerpted from COMPLETING College by VINCENT TINTO Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Vincent Tinto is distinguished professor in the School of Education at Syracuse University. He is the author of Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition and coauthor of Where Colleges Are and Who Attends.

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