Redirecting Learning Services to the “Murky” Middle

New research conducted by the Education Advisory Board suggests that colleges and universities aiming to improve retention and graduation rates may be offering support services to the wrong students.

improve retentionThe Inside Higher Ed article, “The ‘Murky Middle,’” sheds light on some interesting patterns the Education Advisory Board found during its Student Success Collaborative project. The SSC determined that while colleges usually focus most of their student support efforts on freshmen, their time and resources would be better spent focusing on students with GPAs between 2.0 and 3.0.

The study conducted in the SSC shows that students who end their first year with a GPA of 2.0 or lower are unlikely to graduate, regardless of the effort made by their colleges. Similarly, it found that students who end their first year with a GPA of 3.0 or above are likely to graduate, also irrespective of outside forces.

There is also a third group of students, those who end their first year with a GPA between 2.0 and 3.0, who comprise almost half of the total number of dropouts.  Ed Venit, head researcher on the project, refers to this group as the “murky middle.” The term is based on the fact that some of the students in this group will drop out and some will graduate, but it is difficult to predict which way each student is headed.

These students don’t have failing overall GPAs and are making progress against their majors, so they do not show up as “at-risk.” Venit suggests that slight academic improvements can make the biggest impact on this group. Just a small offer of support, like one-to-one tutoring or time management counseling, could keep a student in this group on the graduation track.

Venit and his researchers also found that students’ grades begin to decline several semesters before the student actually drops out. Predictive Insights, a service from, notifies faculty of possible student struggles before they become reality, helping colleges increase retention and graduation rates.

In a recent study conducted by Noel-Levitz to measure the efficacy of online tutoring, it was found that online, one-to-one tutoring can directly increase retention, graduation rates and student success. This type of personalized support, specifically mentioned in “The ‘Murky Middle’”, is a valuable resource to help students in this elusive category succeed. If you haven’t already downloaded the Noel-Levitz study, get your copy here.

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