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“My Job Is Not to Retain You”: The Role of Student Retention Professionals at Four-Year Colleges and Universities

  • Author(s): Ramirez, Joseph John
  • Advisor(s): Hurtado, Sylvia
  • et al.
Abstract

As college completion rates have remained stubbornly flat over time, four-year colleges and universities have been called upon to improve the percentage of students who earn a baccalaureate degree. In response, many campuses have introduced a new professional, non-teaching role that seeks to promote, coordinate, and advance student success. While not much is known about these roles or the individuals who occupy them, understanding retention professionals’ experiences and contributions to change can illuminate who they are, what they do, and how their work reflects institutional approaches to student retention. Thus, the purpose of this study was to explore the emerging role of student retention professionals and how such individuals conceptualize and enact such roles within their respective organizational contexts.

Drawing upon theories of role-making and structuration while utilizing a phenomenological approach, this study extended the concept of structuration to consider not just how a retention professional creates change but also how this newly created role is part of a larger process to changing and reinforcing institutional structures in response to the changing demands placed upon colleges and universities. In addition, structuration theory helped shed light on the challenges retention professionals encountered in advancing change at their respective institutions. Twenty-one retention professionals from across the country participated in the study. One-on-one interviews and participant-developed concept maps provided data for analysis.

Findings from the study contributed to a new understanding of an emerging professional group’s work in higher education, including the changes they make to campus policies and environments, student support systems, and academic pathways and experiences. The study extends student retention theories by illuminating how staff professionals—often missing from retention literature—contribute to student degree attainment and to processes of institutional change. The study explored how retention professionals, while committed to a common goal, enacted their roles in different ways. The findings suggest that retention professionals assume significant responsibility for improving rates of baccalaureate attainment, yet their success depends upon effective collaboration and buy-in from colleagues across the institution. Implications speak to ensuring retention professionals are not limited by traditional academic structures but emboldened to disrupt them.

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