The Changing Nature of Student Retention

Editor’s Note: This entry is part of an occasional series of posts from the ACRL Board of Directors.  In this post, Vice-President/ President-Elect Steven J. Bell discusses student retention and new ACRL Discussion Groups.

In the wake of the approval of a division-level committee restructuring plan by ACRL’s Board of Directors, an almost immediate response is the sprouting of several new Discussion Groups. In one case, the petition to start an International Perspectives on Academic and Research Libraries Discussion Group came quickly after the Board voted to approve the plan.

Discussion Groups are finding their place among the ACRL membership as a convenient and worthy mechanism to organize members with similar interests for the purpose of furthering knowledge and best practices. In recent months the ACRL Board approved the creation of a Discussion Group on Leadership in Academic Libraries.

More recently a proposal came to the Board to organize a Student Retention Discussion Group. This is an excellent opportunity to foster conversations around the Value of Academic Libraries initiative. Advancing the profession’s ability to connect the work of academic librarians to student retention would certainly boost efforts to demonstrate our value. Yet, even as we seek to build strategies for how we do that, new information about the path to graduation informs us that retention, as a goal to help students persist to graduation, may no longer be quite what we thought it was.

In his essay, Jeff Selingo shared the little used terminology, “the student swirl” to describe the erractic path to graduation that is becoming more the norm. This has implications for tracking retention, and the gist of the Chronicle’s report on graduation rates is that the current system fails to accurately track as many as 50% of college students. You can well imagine this. Consider a student who starts their path to graduation as a full-time freshmen. Then he or she has to take a full-time job and converts to part-time status. Then he or she decides to reverse transfer to a community college for the lower tuition. Then he or she transfers back to your college as a junior or possibly to the university across town. Then he or she drops out, but takes several courses with a for-profit provider of online education accredited in your state. Then he or she takes this mishmash bundle of credits somewhere else and manages to graduate after six of seven years.

Where did the retention effort happen in this scenario? Could any librarian at any of these steps along the way have contributed to the ultimate achievement of a diploma? The bottom line is that for the vast majority of our college students the traditional four-years-to-a-diploma-at-idyllic-college is no longer the norm. Going away with it is the ability to concretely establish when, where and how retention occurs – or for that matter what makes a difference when it comes to retention.

Even something as straightforward as retention is no longer so straightforward in an increasingly complex landscape of higher education. What we thought might be the academic librarian’s strategies for promoting retention, be it helping students to acquire the research skills necessary for academic success, building the relationships that students say helps them persist to graduation or embedding ourselves into their courses as a constant source of research assistance, may no longer suffice to support retention for many college students. This is the sort of general uncertainty about our role that makes an ACRL discussion group so essential.

This new Student Retention group has a great opportunity to explore what we need to know about retention in this new education “swirl”, and bring together passionate members to determine exactly what academic libraries can contribute to better rates of retention. With an easy path to start-up, limited administrative oversight and maximum potential for learning, any of ACRL’s discussion groups are an excellent option for a member seeking collegial engagement with a purpose.

Discussion groups are but one way for a member to get engaged with ACRL. Here are even more ways you can get involved.


  1. I have a question that shows how much (or little) I know about ACRL membership (I’ve only been a member for a year now, being young in the profession). Is membership in Discussion Groups tied to dues? Or can one join a Discussion Group free of monetary cost?

    Thank you in advance for enlightening me on this! (For what it’s worth, I didn’t know about the Discussion Groups until now, so thank you for this post…)

    • Good question Donna. Since you are already an ACRL member you can join as many of our discussion groups as you’d like – there is no additional fee. As part of your membership you can join three communities of practice – but no more than two sections. CoP includes sections and interest groups. If you did want to join more than three, any others would carry a fee of $5 each. You can join a discussion group by visiting their ALA Connect space.

      • That’s good to know! Yes, I knew about the communities of practice (though I didn’t realize that’s how they are referred to), as I am able to pick those when I renew my membership each year. But I’m glad the Discussion Groups are part of the package, so to speak, as I navigated over to the list of current groups and saw at least two which I’d like to join. Thank you again for the response!

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