For more than 6 years I worked in offices that developed programs and supported students in the first year of college. I worked as a university retention officer tasked with ensuring university-wide programs were positively impacting the retention of its students from year to year.  It was this role that made me first question – Why do students choose the college they ultimately attend? Who helps them when they are in high school with this very important decision? What could students do in high school that could positively impact their retention and persistence in college? 

We often hear about the term “fit” – Many college counselors, including me, will say they help students “find the right fit” when choosing the colleges to apply to and ultimately attend. Fit can be determined in many ways: Location, size, academic major, sports teams, cultural programming, diversity, and more. When building a college list, what if we think about retention and persistence towards graduation as important components to deciding where to apply?

Vincent Tinto, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University, is a preeminent scholar on the study of college student success who wrote extensively about the first-year college experience and retention. As a student and early professional in higher education, I read Vincent Tinto’s work regularly to guide my practices. Today, I find his suggestions in the essay, “Taking Student Retention Seriously: Rethinking the First Year of College” (Tinto, 1999) to be particularly useful when helping students identify factors that are important to not just getting into college, but for staying there as well. 

Tinto suggests there are five conditions that stand out as supporting the retention of students: Expectations, Support, Feedback, Involvement, and Learning. Here are some ways to think about each condition of retention and how it can help you determine if a college is going to be the right fit and worth making it on your college list.



Colleges want a lot from their students as community members and should be providing clear and consistent messaging to their students about how they can do this. One suggestion is to look towards the academic advising provided to students. It is here that students can understand what is expected of them in the classroom setting, as participants in their learning, when they should be meeting specific goals, and how they should be accomplishing them. Ask questions about how academic advising works throughout the college experience and what style of advising most meets your needs. 


Support Academically and Socially

The transition from high school to college can be bumpy for many students. When learning about a college, identify and learn more about the transitional and support programs that are in place to help you over those bumps. Identifying academic supports through tutoring services, writing labs, math centers, and study groups along with social supports from counseling centers, mentoring programs, cultural/ religious/ racial/ ethnic/ identity spaces are all helpful ways to connect with others and can create dedicated spaces for you to develop as a stronger student and person right from the start. 


Feedback from Faculty, Staff, and Students

When looking at a school, ask questions about how you might be assessed and how often there will be interactions with faculty, staff, and students to know how well you are doing in your learning. It is best to identify what kind of learner you are or want to be and find what types of assessments would be most appealing – Are you interested in using standard assessments (tests, quizzes, essays) as feedback? Do you prefer project-based learning? Would narrative evaluations keep you motivated versus just earning a grade? Knowing the types of feedback that a college promotes can help push you along your journey and meet your short and long-term goals. 


Involvement Academically and Socially 

What happens outside the classroom setting is as important as what happens inside of it. As you learn about colleges, find out what opportunities there are to connect, especially in the first year, to research, academic organizations, clubs, sports, theater, and more. To be involved academically and socially will not just connect you to opportunities, but most importantly to people and to the culture of the institution. When we feel connected, we are more likely to remain committed and stay. 



When learning about a college, focus on the things you want to learn more about. Are there multiple degree programs that pique your interest? Are there concepts or ideas presented during information sessions or on the website that you know little about now, but are excited you could learn more about if you attended? Learning is a central tenet to the college experience and can be fundamental to persisting through to graduation. The more students learn, the more they begin to value, the more they can see their place in the learning community, and the more likely they are to be committed to that community. 


The most successful students find opportunities to engage in the college community rather than be a spectator in the college experience. To be engaged will likely lead to a greater sense of self and community and will provide the foundation for a strong connection to an institution that is eager to retain you and also help to ensure you persist and graduate. 


To learn more about how to build a college list while thinking more deeply about how retention and persistence is an important factor in the process, please reach out to Dana at