Dr. Tymon M. Graham, Director for Administration and Research Strategy of The Payne Center at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund

Dr. Tymon M. Graham serves as the Director for Administration and Research Strategy of The Payne Center at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. The Payne Center is a national research center commissioning research and public policy studies through data-driven social science research methods to inform theory, policy, and practice for and about HBCUs. He previously served as Associate Vice President for Student Success and Engagement at Edward Waters University. He earned a bachelor’s degree from South Carolina State University, a master’s degree from the University of West Georgia, and a Doctor of Education degree from Benedictine University.


In the realm of higher education, student retention is a critical concern that directly impacts the sustainability and success of institutions. As student affairs leaders, developing effective retention strategies requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses engaging faculty and staff, involving families, and prioritizing student-centered practices. Student success continues to be a strategic cornerstone remaining “front of mind” for many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Strategic plans have kept student success centered in the delivery of work products over the years. Institutions now, more than ever before, are embarking on strategic student success initiatives to propel and better position themselves for success and sustainability.

HBCUs serve as beacons of hope, providing educational accessibility and attainment for those who, by societal standards, otherwise may not have had the chance to earn a post-secondary degree. HBCUs have opened the door for so many African Americans, changing the trajectory of families today. With academic programs ranging from education to engineering, business to biology, ministry to mathematics, and social sciences to sports, HBCUs have expanded offerings since their inception.

Most often leading charges aimed at student success, student affairs leaders are at the center of retention efforts, practices, and approaches. Student affairs professionals typically see and spend time with students outside of the classroom far more than anyone else on the campus. Interacting with students in residence halls, student programs, and Greek life functions, student affairs professionals have the unique opportunity to influence, mentor, and structure the student’s experiences on the institutional campus.

The collision of student affairs work and strategic approaches make for the ideal mixture to attain retention goals. Through a tri-focal approach student affairs professionals can work to retain students, one at a time. This approach to achieving student success is paramount to the work and success of the institution. The tri-focal approach includes Affinity Group Tracking, Critical Partner Collaborations, and Engaging Faculty and Staff.

Affinity Group Tracking

As institutions continue to evolve their thinking and approach to retention, everyone must take part in the process. Employing a collaborative tracking system for affinity groups provides for cross-divisional engagement in student success and retention. Affinity groups serve as overarching campus groups and organizations woven in the institutional fabric to which students find their belonging and niche. With students belonging to athletic teams, student organizations, and student leadership groups, institutions are primed for success when capturing student data through affinity group tracking. With so many students in campus organizations, tracking the academic and non-academic success of each student in individual student organizations is an enormous endeavor. Engaging the advisors, coaches, and mentors of groups to assist with tracking is ideal. With accurate tracking must also come appropriate measures of intervention. Over time you will see the data hopefully moving in a positive direction with intentional intervention and engagement, while providing appropriate resources for each student within affinity groups.

Critical Partner Collaboration

Student affairs leaders must engage the student’s family to retain a student. Family involvement is a crucial, yet often underutilized, aspect of student retention. Engaging families can provide additional support networks for students, enhancing their sense of belonging and commitment to their education. Through intentional and clear communication with families, they too become partners with institutions in the retention of their students from the very beginning. Families drop their students off with institutions and it is the job of all members of the institution to return students back to their families more educated, more refined, and an even greater force to compete in global America. To do this, institutions must have an open and collaborative partnership with families. Informing families of the resources available to their students and opportunities to partner in their student’s success is critical. Maintaining regular communication through newsletters, emails, and webinars keeps families informed about campus events, academic deadlines, and support services. This ongoing dialogue helps families feel connected and invested in their student’s success. Parents are not only partners while students are physically on the campus but also when students are at home and away from campus. Utilizing families to partner with the university staff is critical when there is an opportunity to be an encourager during challenging times, a rejuvenator during campus breaks, and a motivator to ensure administrative and enrollment tasks are completed timely. From registering for classes to completing financial aid documents, a parent’s already established position in a student’s life enables them to be a driving force in the student’s completion and advancement in college.

Engaging Faculty and Staff

Faculty and staff play pivotal roles in shaping the student experience. Their involvement in retention efforts can significantly influence student success. Encouraging collaboration between academic and student affairs departments can lead to more cohesive support systems. Regular meetings and joint initiatives can help break down silos, ensuring that both faculty and staff are aligned in their efforts to support students. Establishing meaningful relationships and engaging faculty and staff utilizing wraparound services is critical. Both must underscore each other in their respective realms. At the core of any institution is the academic function. When there are campus programs, faculty must be engaged and visible to students. This allows students to see faculty as active and supportive participants in their success, not only facilitators of in-class instruction. When there is an academic function or a student encounters academic challenges, staff must serve as a support system and act as navigating agents to propel students to their success. While faculty see students weekly, members of the staff can see and communicate with students daily. Through out-of-the-classroom experiences, staff can complement the academic studies with programming to invigorate and develop the whole student.

It takes a village to assist in the student’s overall success. Though often facilitated by student affairs leaders, the institutional investment in students must be widespread. By fostering a collaborative and inclusive environment, student affairs leaders can create a supportive framework that not only addresses the diverse needs of students but also empowers them to thrive academically and personally. Each division across the campus must take a part in creating an atmosphere of student success in their respective areas while implementing cross-divisional collaboration. Employing the tri-focal approach of dividing, communicating, and tracking affinity groups, building relationships with parents and families as critical partners, and engaging faculty and staff in the student experience, student affairs leaders will be better positioned to accelerate student retention.


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