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I’ve written on retention before (as I’m sure all my readers vividly recall) but excuse a return to the topic.  Keeping students in college is a clear challenge in the contemporary United States where our record has fallen below levels in many other countries. And it’s an obvious goal for educators from substantive and business standpoints alike.

Business: It’s cheaper to keep a student than to recruit a new one.  Substantive: Retention is surely a valid measure of the quality of educational input and correspondingly, a relevant, if crude, measure of outcomes (particularly when resulting in ultimate graduation).

Mason has experienced fairly steady improvements in retention over the past decade, and we’ve recently learned that from last year to this year our retention improved again — by almost two percentage points (up 1.7 points from freshman to sophomore, where we now are in the high 80s, and by 2.3% from sophomore to junior).  All of this is leading, though gradually, to marked improvements in graduation rates as well.  So part of this comment is simply a celebration of ongoing achievement, with thanks to the many faculty and staff — and students — who contribute to the result.

But the trends also triggered a question yesterday from our Board of Visitors, which is perennially interesting: how to account for this fairly steady change? And the honest answer is we don’t fully know. It’s surely a combination of factors — recruiting better students is one. Improvements in student housing and student life are another. The addition of exciting new educational options, both majors and minors, and steady efforts to improve teaching quality surely helps. But what the exact mix is defies easy assessment; it’s a joint effort in more ways than one.

The effort, however, remains incomplete. We have obvious room for additional improvement, particularly in the sophomore to junior connection. We’re working on improvements in advising and in the administration of financial aid toward further progress, along with continued attention to the major contextual factors cited above. Enhancements in undergraduate STEM education should have some impact as well.  It’s important to challenge ourselves still further as one of Mason’s fundamental goals. Retention is less sexy that some other achievements at a university, but it’s arguably a top priority in terms of real value.