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College student retention programs

Health Factors: Education
Decision Makers: Educators
Evidence Rating: Insufficient Evidence
Population Reach: 1-9% of WI's population
Impact on Disparities: Likely to decrease disparities

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College student retention programs tend to focus primarily on students in their first and second year of college as this is the time when the greatest number of students withdraw from postsecondary education (ACT 2004). Such programs vary substantially in design and execution.  Examples include: Early alert, assessment, and monitoring systems to identify students at risk of dropping out for early intervention; Freshman Seminar; and HORIZONS. Organizational Theory practices, designed to create an institutional culture conducive to student retention, are another means of encouraging college student retention.  

Expected Beneficial Outcomes

Increased college retention rates
Increased graduation rates

Evidence of Effectiveness

ACT-Student retention 2004 indicates that emphasis on retention strategies over the past several decades has not had a substantial impact on college retention overall. However, such programs have been effective in some venues and for some students: US ED-Dale 1995 reports that 85% of students participating in HORIZON, a Purdue University based student retention program, were retained compared to only 47% of non-enrollee peers.  Participants indicated that belonging to a support network, having assistance with effective study methods, and tutoring were most important to their decision not to leave school. 

ACT-Habley 2010 review of college retention efforts among 4-year public colleges concludes that the following programs were most useful in discouraging students from leaving college: 

• Freshman seminar/university 101 courses
• Supplemental instruction
• Tutoring
• Living/learning communities
• Advising interventions with selected student populations
• Mandated placement of students in courses based on test scores
• Academic advising center
• Summer orientation
• Establishment and use of an early warning system

Early warning systems, freshman seminar/university 101 courses, advising interventions with selected student populations, faculty mentoring, tutoring, summer orientation, and internships were also reportedly effective at 4-year private colleges (ACT-Habley 2010a).  


United States

A recent survey of public and private colleges found that only 59% offered a freshman seminar (51% for credit and 8% not for credit).


A number of University of Wisconsin system schools offer freshman seminars to incoming students.

Implementation Resources

Purdue-HORIZONS - Purdue University. HORIZONS student support program. Accessed on January 25, 2016

Citations - Evidence

ACT-Habley 2010 - Habley W, Valiga M, McClanahan R, Burkum K. What works in student retention? Fourth national survey: Public four-year colleges and universities report. Iowa City: ACT; 2010. Accessed on November 23, 2015
ACT-Habley 2010a - Habley W, Valiga M, McClanahan R, Burkum K. What works in student retention? Fourth national survey: Private four-year colleges and universities. Iowa City: ACT; 2010. Accessed on November 20, 2015
ACT-Student retention 2004 - Lotkowski VA, Robbins SB, Noeth RJ. The role of academic and non-academic factors in improving college retention. Iowa City: ACT; 2004. Accessed on November 23, 2015
US ED-Dale 1995 - Dale PM. A successful college retention program. Washington, DC: US Department of Education (US ED); 1995. Accessed on February 28, 2017

Page Last Updated

January 1, 2011