Addressing Retention Theory Through Equitable Access

By Michael Moore | October 29, 2023
Equitable Access

Addressing Retention Theory Through Equitable Access

If you have any familiarity with higher education, you have some idea of luminary theorists Vincent Tinto and Alexander Astin. Tinto’s groundbreaking research on student retention has significantly shaped our understanding of why students drop out of higher education. Among other factors, Tinto identifies academic difficulty and a disconnection from the educational community, also identified as social integration, as reasons students drop out. Additionally, Astin’s seminal Input-Environment-Output model provides a framework for understanding the dynamics of student development and academic success. His model suggests ‘Input’ factors, such as student demographics and prior educational experiences, interact with the ‘Environment,’ which includes educational settings and resources, to produce ‘Output,’ or educational outcomes and student success. Higher education has historically grappled with these issues, and it still does today. I think that Equitable Access course materials intervention models have the potential to mitigate the issues of which Astin and Tinto have made us aware. I thought it would be interesting for us to explore the connections between Tinto’s drop out factors, Astin’s I-E-O model, and Equitable Access.

Equitable Access

Let’s start with how I understand Equitable Access course materials intervention models. Equitable Access is a revolutionary course materials intervention model that standardizes the cost of course materials through a flat fee structure, ensuring that every student in every course has immediate access to required materials from the first day of class. By doing so, it aims to level the academic playing field and create a more inclusive educational environment.

Tinto’s Drop-Out Factors

Vincent Tinto’s work has highlighted two factors that contribute to student drop-out:

  • Academic Difficulty: Students who struggle academically, sometimes due to a lack of access to required course materials, are at a higher risk of dropping out.
  • Disconnection: A sense of disconnection or lack of engagement with the academic community can also lead to retention and persistence issues.

Impacting Academic Difficulty Through Equitable Access

A significant barrier to academic success is the cost of and access to required textbooks and course materials. Students who cannot or do not acquire their required materials are at a distinct disadvantage, which can lead to poor academic performance and, ultimately, attrition.

How Equitable Access Helps Academic Difficulty

By ensuring that all students have immediate access to their required course materials, Equitable Access eliminates or reduces the access and affordability barriers. Institutions that have implemented this model show promising results. For instance, my research on participants vs. non-participants in an Equitable Access model shows a +15.58% difference in course completion rate for participants, and +1% increase in course completion rate in a pre/post study. Additionally, surveys from the University of California – Davis and San Diego State University found more students have their required course materials with Equitable Access than before, more students than not would recommend the Equitable Access program to other students, and a majority of students who opted out of the program did not secure the required materials for two or more classes.

Mitigating Disconnection Through Equitable Access

Tinto identifies a sense of disconnection or lack of social integration as another significant factor contributing to student drop-out. Students who do not feel integrated into the academic community are more likely to leave.

How Equitable Access Helps Mitigate Disconnection

Without having the required course materials, students cannot engage in the classroom, with their peers, or with the course content. They are not able to participate in class, in group assignments, or reference the materials; not to mention the stigma of not being able to afford or acquire the required materials. By creating universal access to the required course materials, students have the required materials for all their courses. This means they can be fully engaged with the necessary resources and state of mind to focus on their studies – not on their lack of resources. Ensuring all students have unimpeded access to their materials fosters a sense of community among students and the classroom.

Synergy with Tinto’s Model

The implications of Equitable Access align well with the challenges identified in Tinto’s research. By ensuring equal access to academic resources and fostering a sense of community, Equitable Access can serve as one approach to combat both academic difficulty and disconnection.

Astin’s Input-Environment-Output Model

Alexander Astin’s Input-Environment-Output (I-E-O) model offers a comprehensive framework that outlines the factors influencing student success in higher education. The ‘Input’ factors incorporate variables like student demographics, academic background, and prior educational experiences. Students carry these factors with them when they enter higher education. These ‘Input’ factors interact with the ‘Environment,’ which is the educational setting, resources, and experiences provided by the institution. This interaction ultimately leads to ‘Output,’ which manifests as a variety of different educational outcomes such as academic achievement, retention, and overall student success. Broadly, Equitable Access can enrich the educational ‘Environment,’ making it more conducive to learning and academic success.

Equitable Access and Astin’s I-E-O Model

  • Enhanced Environment: Equitable Access directly impacts the ‘Environment’ component of Astin’s I-E-O model. By making course materials accessible, the Equitable Access removes two of the most significant barriers in higher education – access and affordability. This ensures that all students, regardless of their ‘Input’ characteristics, have equal access to course materials. In doing so, Equitable Access creates a more equitable and inclusive ‘Environment.’
  • Improved Output: With an enhanced ‘Environment,’ we can expect a more meaningful ‘Output’ in the form of student success, retention, and academic achievement. Students who have immediate access to course materials are more likely to be engaged in their coursework, participate in class discussions, and perform well in assessments. This can lead to higher retention rates, better grades, and, ultimately, a more successful academic journey. A more meaningful ‘Output’ aligns with my research theoretical lens of Expectancy (Vroom) and Self-Efficacy (Bandura).
  • Can Easier Access to Course Materials Improve the ‘Environment’? The answer to this question is ‘yes’. Easier and more convenient access to course materials not only improves the ‘Environment’ but also has a multiplier effect on ‘Output.’ When students are more engaged and faculty can tailor instruction more effectively, the institution as a whole can benefit from higher retention and success rates. This creates a virtuous cycle where improved ‘Environment’ leads to better ‘Output’.

Wrap Up

The challenges of student retention and attrition are complex and require a multifaceted approach – multiple parts of the institution working together. Singularly, Equitable Access will not solve these challenges. However, when used in conjunction with efforts institutions are already using to improve student success, it can be effective in addressing the challenges raised by the work of Astin and Tinto. Course materials interventions, but Equitable Access specifically, are not just about making course materials more affordable. They are about creating an educational environment where every student has an equal opportunity to succeed.

As always, thanks for checking in and I’ll see you next time.