College student in classroom looking happy

For higher education to fulfil its promise to students, institutions must create environments in which students want to persist, graduate, and launch their careers. What are the ways in which institutions of higher education can increase student retention?

To find out, we spoke with Dr. Vincent Tinto, Professor Emeritus of Education at Syracuse University, whose framework of student retention has persisted for 50 years. The “Tinto Model of Retention” posits that all students come to college and university with a lifetime of prior experiences; and these experiences shape how students experience the array of different communities at our educational institutions. Students who feel they belong and matter within these communities increase students’ commitment to an institution and fosters their motivation to persist.

The challenge is that colleges and universities are big places with a vast array of communities, groups, and cultures. Fostering belonging and mattering for students starts in the classroom, the core of our educational institutions. Tinto emphasizes that creating learning communities is central to retention efforts because the classroom is the only place on campus where every single student is at.

What this means is that faculty matter: they are the front lines of student retention efforts. Institutions need to focus efforts on intentionally designing learning communities, supporting faculty in their pedagogical pursuits, and fully recognizing the impact of the learning experience for students in their motivation to persist and graduate.

Across his career, Tinto’s retention model has centered on the role of the learning communities for fostering student motivation to persist. What are applicable strategies to build learning strategies? Throughout our conversation, Tinto hits on four strategies.

  1. Make the First Day of Class Count 

Tinto has firm advice for faculty on the first day of class: “Don’t read the syllabus”. Instead, Tinto advises getting students working together right away. The first day of class is about setting the expectation for collaboration, engagement, and inclusiveness. Demonstrate these expectations on the first day.

Learning communities are built from engagement and discussion among students — students who don’t yet know each other! Tinto recommends not letting students choose their own groups for activities in class because students will gravitate toward their friends and others who are most similar to them. Instead have students work with new students across the semester. By creating a classroom environment in which students feel included and that their voice is heard, students feel like they belong in the campus environment, fostering commitment and persistence.

  1. Create an Environment to Support Faculty Teaching

As the pandemic-era of teaching has made clear, faculty at our institutions have increasingly diverse and complex demands put on them in addition to building and executing courses. At a minimum, faculty must not only teach, but also mentor, advise, research, and serve. Teaching — the practice of course design, community building, and educating — is hard. Faculty need the proper supports, incentives, and rewards from within the university system to focus and excel in creating learning communities in their classrooms. 

In addition to the right systems of support, faculty also need learning communities of their own! Practitioners of teaching know that peer-to-peer learning is a foundational component of the student learning experience. And just as with students, peer-to-peer learning is foundational for faculty, too. Courses, knowledge, and student needs are constantly evolving, and faculty embedded in communities of practitioners will be consistently exposed to new methods to apply in their own classrooms. As Tinto notes, faculty communities foster learning communities.

  1. Don’t Blame the Student

Central to Tinto’s framework is to see the university through the student’s perspective. It is not uncommon for perspectives on student retention to focus on what the student could do differently to persist. But, as Tinto emphasizes, context matters. Students engage with the university and those engagements shape their perspective on learning, higher education, and the institution. 

Faculty do so much more than just teach — they construct these environments in which students learn and are the single place in which all students engage. The importance of the classroom for shaping positive experiences of students from their first day of class to when they walk across the stage to get their diploma can’t be understated and, in alignment with Tinto’s model, should be the driving force of institution’s retention efforts. 


If you’re interested in learning more about Vincent Tinto’s  work on student retention, be sure to listen to our conversation with him.

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Nicole Barbaro

As a research scientist at WGU Labs, Dr. Nicole Barbaro designs evaluation and validation studies of the education-based products at WGU Labs and their partner institutions, and is focused on improving student educational outcomes. She earned a PhD in psychology with a specialization in evolution and human development from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. In addition to her work at WGU Labs, she serves as the Communications Officer for the Human Behavior and Evolution Society and has published more than 40 scholarly articles in leading psychology journals.