Higher Learning Commission

Student Success at the Liberal Arts College

Michael Latham, Randall Stiles and Kaitlin Wilcox


Liberal arts colleges provide students with an opportunity to discover intellectual and personal interests, acquire vital skills, and learn through high-impact pedagogical practices in an intimate, residential setting shaped by close interactions with dedicated, tenure-track faculty members. Classes at the nation’s best liberal arts colleges are small and inquiry-driven; students have access to excellent research opportunities, libraries, laboratories and infrastructure. Yet the liberal arts model also faces significant challenges in terms of finances, access, sustainability, technology and heightened public scrutiny. To succeed in that environment, liberal arts colleges will need to make compelling arguments regarding cost, value and quality. They will also need to devote renewed attention to questions of student retention and success, demonstrating that they are able to deliver an outstanding education that enables students to learn, thrive and complete their degrees at high rates.

Challenges for Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges now operate in an increasingly complex environment that places a greater premium on student retention and success than ever before. Over the past decade, tuition and fee increases at private, nonprofit liberal arts colleges and universities have averaged 2.4 percent above the rate of inflation. In the past few years increases have averaged 4 to 5 percent, roughly twice the consumer price index (Anderson 2012). As tuition has climbed, competition among institutions for high-performing students has also led to the aggressive, broad use of increased financial and, especially, merit aid in an attempt to build and sustain enrollments. From 2000 to 2010, the national freshman discount rate increased from 37.3 percent to 42.4 percent, contributing to a cycle of higher tuition and higher discount rates, eroding revenue per student and putting pressure on institutions that lacked the resources to compete (Chronicle of Higher Education 2011). While longer-term endowment returns have remained solid, colleges face sharp swings that make such financial arms racing difficult. In 2011, for example, endowment returns averaged an impressive 19 percent, but in 2012 they remained basically flat (Troop 2013).

In addition to this complex financial picture, colleges must also respond to shifting national demographics. Over the next 20 years, for example, the number of high school graduates in the northeastern United States is expected to fall by approximately 10 percent, and similar trends are appearing in other markets. The nation’s high school graduating pool is increasingly diverse as well. By 2020, students from minority groups are projected to account for 45 percent of the nation’s public high school graduates. Liberal arts colleges, therefore, face the challenge of delivering an outstanding education, preserving accessibility to students and supporting an excellent faculty while still remaining financially strong. To succeed in that changed landscape, they will need to recruit, retain and support larger numbers of minority and first-generation college students, often reaching into markets with which they have historically had less engagement and in which college completion rates are frequently below those of more affluent students from privileged backgrounds.

Most crucially, colleges will need to make compelling arguments about the enduring value of the liberal arts, demonstrating that a major investment in a degree in history, English or anthropology will not leave students to graduate deeply in debt, with few employment prospects, doomed to live in their parents’ basements. While dire predictions of disruptive innovation and massive consolidation have yet to be realized, colleges will need to empower their students to succeed in an environment in which rapid technological change has altered the nature of libraries, classroom instruction and skills demanded for entry into the job market. Starting with the 2006 Spellings Commission Report and its call for a “culture of accountability and transparency” in data collection and measurement of outcomes-based student learning, governmental demands that colleges demonstrate the value of their product have increased as well. More recently, the Obama administration’s “College Scorecard” has put a heightened premium on strategies to measure, promote and enhance student success, retention and completion. Now more than ever before, liberal arts colleges will need to bridge effective data collection, predictive analytics and interventions to support their students. To do so, they will need to develop integrated systems for information sharing across campus offices and expand their focus from traditional academic preparation and support to the other “non-cognitive factors” shaping student outcomes, including social integration, resilience and mental health.

The Quality Initiative at Grinnell College

Grinnell College is a small, private, residential and highly selective liberal arts college. We serve a diverse pool of highly talented and motived students, and, relative to national norms, we retain and graduate those students at a very high rate. Since 2008 the six-year graduation rate at Grinnell has fluctuated from 84 percent to 90 percent. While this range of completion rates is better than that of higher education as a whole, several institutions in our Peer 16 group1 routinely achieve rates in the 94 to 96 percent range. After deliberations regarding the graduation rates of our national peers and discussion of achievable goals, we have come to believe that we should aspire to at least a 92 percent six-year graduation rate.

For its Open Pathway Quality Initiative, Grinnell College is undertaking a systematic analysis of student success and persistence to completion of the baccalaureate degree. Beginning with an examination of the current and historical four-year and six-year graduation rates, the college expects to improve its methodology of tracking student success in real time, using aggregate data to model features of student success, to examine these features to understand student behavior and to enhance those support services that promote student success. To achieve such a goal, colleges like Grinnell need to develop approaches suited to their own particular characteristics. Grinnell has relied on an individually mentored curriculum without general education requirements since 1971. Aside from taking the First-Year Tutorial and declaring a major, Grinnell students have been encouraged to design their own course of study in collaboration with academic advisors. This individually mentored curriculum is one source of the diversity of the Grinnell experience. A second source originates from the diversity of the students, embodied, cognitive and socioeconomic. The interaction between the myriad paths offered by the curriculum and the individuality of the students account for some of Grinnell’s greatest successes. The incalculable combinations of curricular environment and student interactions, however, also poses a challenge to a comprehensive method for assisting and assessing students as they chart their course through the curriculum. Our central focus is on understanding and ameliorating the problems that a highly diverse population of students face in completing a degree. To increase the college’s six-year graduation rate to parity with its peers, student behavior will be studied by collecting meaningful information from both students and the student support offices of the college. The intention is to better understand the current availability of qualitative and quantitative information concerning students and student support so as to (1) better identify those students who struggle and why, (2) better identify interventions that help students succeed, and (3) to graduate more of the students that enroll. Toward this end, the following seven projects are now underway.

1. Conferences on Student Success at the Liberal Arts College

In April 2015, Grinnell College hosted a conference2 regarding best practices in student success operations and research and designed for faculty members, student affairs staff members and institutional researchers. Conference participants included faculty members and staff members from eight highly selective liberal arts colleges, two state universities, the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and the RAND Corporation. A follow-up conference is planned for spring 2016 with the theme of “Thriving at the Liberal Arts College.”

2. Predictive Modeling

In partnership with Civitas Learning of Austin, Texas, the college is developing a predictive modeling platform that will ultimately be based on a combination of admissions, academic, observational and social-psychological data to provide a complement to other alert systems already in place.

3. Mid-semester Evaluations

Having recognized the strong relationship between first-semester GPA and subsequent academic performance, the college is enhancing existing Mid-Term Progress Reports with more comprehensive and granular mid-semester evaluations by faculty members for all first-year students.

4. The “Finish Line” Project

This is a new and aggressive outreach to students who have left Grinnell College before graduating; it is not only yielding students who return but also providing new data to inform the college’s decision making regarding student success interventions.

5. Academically Struggling at-Risk First-Year Students

Based on Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods (2011), this program seeks to build good academic habits through a peer-based social/academic cohort supported by Grinnell faculty and staff mentors.

6. Academic Success Seminar

An existing seminar is being redesigned based on known best practices to provide struggling students with evidence-based college success strategies.

7. First-Year Advising Partnerships: Career Development, Faculty, and Residential Life

A new partnership between the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS), Student Affairs, and Grinnell’s Tutorial Program has been established. In addition to an academic advisor, all first-year students are now assigned a CLS advisor as well. By integrating these services into each student’s first-year experience, the college hopes to promote retention by more deeply engaging students with opportunities for internships and learning beyond the classroom.


Campus-wide engagement at Grinnell College in the challenges and new initiatives outlined in this paper has provided a substantive, exciting and important Quality Initiative. Every area of the college has a role to play in matters of student success. We owe it to all of our students to do everything we can to provide a great developmental experience, and we at Grinnell College look forward to sharing results to date at the annual conference with other liberal arts institutions.


Anderson, N. 2012. More private colleges holding line on tuition. Washington Post, December 27. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/more-private-colleges-holding-line-on-tuition/2012/12/27/75a88186-3d59-11e2-bca3-aadc9b7e29c5_story.html.

Chronicle of Higher Education. 2011. Tuition-discount rates at private colleges are rising. Chronicle of Higher Education, August 21.

Lareau, A. 2011. Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life, with an update a decade later. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Troop, D. 2013. In a volatile economy, colleges’ endowment returns fall flat. Chronicle of Higher Education, February 1.


1. The “Peer 16” is a comparison group used for benchmarking at Grinnell College. See https://www.grinnell.edu/about/offices-services/institutional-research/resources.

2. “Student Success at the Liberal Arts College: Best Practices in Operations and Research”; paper on findings presented at the 11th Annual National Symposium on Student Retention, Orlando, Florida, November 3, 2015.


About the Authors

Michael Latham is Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College, Randall Stiles is Associate Vice President, Analytic Support and Institutional Research, and Kaitlin Wilcox is Associate Director, Analytic Support and Institutional Research, at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.

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