Keeping at-Risk Students in School: A Systematic Review of College Retention Programs

Jeffrey C. Valentine, Amy S. Hirschy, Christine D. Bremer, Walter Novillo, Marisa Castellano, Aaron Banister

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


The wage premium for college graduates is substantial. Far fewer of these benefits accrue to students who complete some college (i.e., those who do not persist to graduation), and, partly for this reason, colleges often adopt programs aimed at helping to keep at-risk students in school. This article reports on a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies of such retention programs. The studies suggest small but potentially important effects on short-term retention rates and grades earned by program participants. Studies of more comprehensive interventions using relatively more appropriate comparison groups suggested more effective results than did studies that used weaker interventions, relatively less appropriate comparison groups, or both. Even the best studies included in this review are methodologically suspect and as such do not provide a very strong basis for making policy recommendations. From a public policy perspective, this review points to the need for more investment in rigorous studies that investigate, at a finer level of detail, the specific aspects of programs that are associated with program success. Rigorous studies are also needed that investigate the interaction between programs and student characteristics to determine what types of programs are most effective for which students.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)214-234
Number of pages21
JournalEducational Evaluation and Policy Analysis
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2011
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The work reported herein was supported under the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, PR/Award (No. V051A070003), as administered by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the Office of Vocational and Adult Education or the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government. We thank Jay Noell, Jim Stone, and three anonymous reviewers for the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education for their helpful suggestions and Kirsten E. Sundell for editing previous versions of this article.


  • dropout prevention
  • meta-analysis
  • retention


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