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Building a Student Retention Program - A Challenge Worth the Effort

University Business, May 2008

Student retention is one of the most important issues facing higher education today. With one-third of college students dropping out of school each year, it's a topic universities across the country have noticed, but few have found a workable solution to the problem. Admissions offices are already stretched to the breaking point, budgets are tight across the board, and developing and instituting a feasible student retention program can feel like an insurmountable challenge.

It doesn't have to be so daunting. Developing and maintaining an effective student retention program is within the reach of all universities. And with the ever-increasing competition for students, retaining those who enroll at your institution is of the utmost importance. Not only does turnover of enrolled students cost an institution financially, low retention rates degrade the quality of the educational experience on campus. By committing to three key steps, any university can improve its student retention statistics and the experience of all its students.

As with most multifaceted problems, the first step is to understand what an institution is facing. From one university to the next, the reasons students do not return to class the next semester vary. In some cases, students' financial challenges coupled with higher tuition rates may be cause for withdrawal. Elsewhere, students may not be receiving the personal attention they need to cope with the work load. Each institution must create its own distinct plan of action. A thorough assessment of the reasons students are leaving an institution will yield valuable insight to help form an effective student retention plan.

Next, assessing student personalities helps institutions identify traits that lead to student success and conversely, behaviors and characteristics that signal a student at risk. Using results of the student assessment, along with student academic and demographic data, an institution can create a model to predict the likelihood of student success. This predictive model will serve as the roadmap for building the student retention program by outlining particular risk factors and allowing a university to address each appropriately. The predictive model also helps institutions identify at-risk students before it is too late.

It is often advisable to work with an outside agency to perform an assessment. An impartial party has the benefit of having seen an array of problems and their accompanying solutions in a variety of environments. It is also better able to address politically charged situations that may be overlooked by a group entrenched internally. Such an unbiased viewpoint is essential when a school is truly ready to positively impact student retention. Careful evaluation of student success factors and retention efforts will result in a clear and executable plan for improving student retention.

After identifying an institution's retention challenges and common risk factors for its students, it's time to develop a plan to address the issues uncovered. At the heart of this step is effective, meaningful communication with students who have been identified as being at high risk for attrition. Information uncovered during the assessment process will shape communication plans to address the needs of specific student groups. Whether it be registration deadline dates or details about study group meeting times, just providing information to students can make all the difference in helping them stay enrolled and eventually graduate.

Communication systems can improve efficiency and free up staff for personal interaction with students who need it. These systems combine sophisticated databases that monitor students' risk levels based on the criteria identified during the assessment process. When a student meets a certain condition, these systems can deliver pertinent information to help reverse the trend. Scheduled e-mail, mail and phone communication alerts students to the resources they need and helps them find the path to stay in school. Because these systems can deliver messages about specific topics to the students who need them, these systems let a small staff accomplish more and make the retention office more efficient and effective.

Some students will get the help they need to get back on track through the communication systems. These reminders with helpful information will provide the nudge they need to complete tasks on time and stay on top of their educational responsibilities.

Other students who are at higher risk may require more personal attention to succeed. The retention office will assign an achievement coach to each of these high-risk students using information obtained during the other two steps to make an appropriate match with a professional. Thanks to an automated communication system, the retention staff now will be free to provide one-on-one counseling to help these students achieve their education goals.

Personal coaches should be assigned only to those students who are most at-risk and need a more high-touch approach. These students will meet with their coaches weekly (or more often, if necessary) for guidance uncovering their strengths and weaknesses and setting short-term and long-term goals. This frequent contact with an achievement expert will likely provide the support these students need to reach their educational goals. In time, these students will be back on track and learn to manage their responsibilities independently. By addressing the needs of these students in a personal way, the university will enjoy greatly improved retention rates.

While mounting a full-scale retention improvement program can seem overwhelming, it's important to consider the results such a program can have on an institution. Not only do improved retention rates contribute to the overall reputation of a university, effective communication with at-risk students improves the experience these students have in college, turning them into ambassadors for the school. And improved retention takes the burden of replacing lost students, a time-consuming and costly exercise, off the admissions department.

With average retention rates hovering around 68 percent at four-year colleges and universities, the time to act is now. Remember that there is expert assistance available during all steps of the retention program process. With renewed commitment to retaining students and guidance from retention professionals, universities can understand their unique retention challenges and overcome them.

<em>Craig Heldman is president of Hobsons U.S., a company that helps colleges and universities elevate their enrollment strategies. More information is available at</em>;

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