New York Times Magazine this past week), our community college is currently engaged with the problem of student retention. Put simply, the college administration is trying to discover the reasons why students drop out of school, in order to encourage them instead to complete a college degree. There is a lot to say about this, and there is a lot of data out there. There has also been a lot of past educational research about the reasons why college students drop out of school. From my position as a librarian, I have been trying to figure out how the library in particular could factor into college student retention and persistence.
The best idea I've come up with so far is to try and make as many textbooks as possible available on reserve at the library. Requests for textbooks are extremely common at the reference desk, and I happen to manage reserves policies, so I seem to be in a good position to work on this. Putting a book (or anything) on reserve means that students must use the library as an access point, whether for a textbook, an article, a calculator, a laptop, etc. With physical objects such as textbooks, use is typically restricted to in-house for 2-3 hours per circulation. At other colleges where I have worked, having access to textbooks in the library has been an extremely popular option for students.
There are plenty of reasons why students use textbooks on reserve, such as forgetting or choosing not to bring their own books, or waiting for postal service or financial aid. Sometimes, students feel they cannot afford their textbooks, in which case having a copy on reserve at the library is a stopgap. The library's usage limitations are usually enough of an inconvenience that students do not spend an entire semester exclusively reliant on the library's copy of a textbook. But this type of support from the library does seem to be welcome.
A relationship between having textbooks on reserve and student retention is only intuitive at this point, and so far I have found no data to support a positive correlation. But I'm willing to try this out. At the least, I hope it will bring positive attention to the library and greater visibility to one of our services. Currently we do have a few textbooks on reserve, but availability varies by department. We have no room in the budget for maintaining an ongoing textbook collection, but we have been told by a number of sources that a spare copy of a required textbook for reserve at the library is something that publishers might supply.
Working with various constituencies -- the book store, department secretaries, and publishers' book representatives -- I hope to have as many of the required textbooks on reserve in the Fall 2010 semester as possible, and then we'll try and find out if the students who used them went on to complete their degrees.
Understandably, the organization and planning of this project has been occupying a good portion of my attention recently...