An Evolutionary Perspective on Increasing Student Success, and the (Partial) Fallacy of First Year Retention

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Teacher-Scholar: The Journal of the State Comprehensive University


With state support for higher education declining and/or increasingly tied to performance outcomes, and greater emphasis being paid to the debt load incurred by students, student retention and success have become key drivers of universities’ strategic decision-making. Much effort has concentrated on first-year students; however, it may be more advantageous to pay greater attention to the fate of students at later points in their careers. We apply the concept of Reproductive Value to explore dynamics of retention rates, graduation rates, and degree production within and among seven state comprehensive universities. We ask: (1) Is enhanced first-year retention predictive of subsequent increases in persistence and graduation rates; and (2) At what point in students’ careers should retention efforts be targeted to maximize the impact on graduation rates and/or revenue to institutions? Our results indicate that investing in the success of students closer to graduation yields a greater positive impact on graduation rate and degree production (though not realized tuition revenue) than does similar investment in first-year students. Our approach can also serve as a framework for strategic decision-making in other contexts.



academic achievement, dropouts--Prevention, student retention, graduation rates