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Put Students Back Into Your Retention Plan

University Business, July/August 2012

As colleges and universities increasingly face an environment that uses graduation rates as the primary unit of measure, it’s easy to quickly gravitate towards statistics as the final measure of success. Campuses often measure how many students complete the transition from first semester to second, first year to second year, etc. These performance metrics can inform administrators about overall student success. In many cases, the numbers highlight problem areas that ultimately lead to incomplete degrees and downward trends. But the story does not end here. Campus leaders must continually refine their systems to push toward individualized details, being careful not to stray too far away from individual students into abstract, aggregated statistics. Student engagement in both problem identification and resolution will ultimately drive program success, reducing attrition and keeping more students on campus.

While most colleges and universities already rely on a retention plan to reduce attrition rates, only one-third of polled educators believe their plans are effective. Campus leaders can follow these four steps to gain more benefits from their retention programs.

Evolution: Retention begins with the student

It’s easy to see that today’s student is substantially different than the college student we once were. Adult learners face a wide range of demands as they balance education within their busy lives that often make it difficult for them to access the resources we provide. Frequently, I think educators are flabbergasted that students complain about not having access to resources when the college offers an advising center that is frequently under utilized except during peak registration times. The problem is students’ bandwidth. Students need access to resources on their terms.

So how do we provide resources to students on their terms? Let’s ask them. Here’s a list of questions that I think every institution should pose to their students as they seek to improve their advising processes:

  • What is the best way for us to contact you?
  • Would you like to come by and visit an advisor during specific office hours or would you prefer online advising information?
  • What resources do you currently use to select your courses?
  • What is the largest obstacle for you to get the resources you need at the college?

Communication: Timing is key

At-risk students typically display several behaviors prior to leaving campus: absence, dropping grades, and missed appointments. Once you identify students as at-risk, proactive, personalized communication is essential in keeping them enrolled. This dialogue can be the first thing that impacts students’ decisions to stay enrolled.

More importantly, having the ability to communicate immediately with those students who are at-risk is invaluable in keeping students on campus. To do this, many schools use retention-based Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) systems. By communicating with students frequently and immediately, you make sure they have all the resources they need to stay enrolled.

While nothing can replace one-on-one individualized communication, technology can be key to making sure students receive the communication they need in a timely manner.

Examination: Continuously monitor your program

Once they achieve results, many institutions continue along what they assume is their optimal success path. To continue to see positive results, schools must examine their retention programs from all angles. Schools can employ a variety of different methods, including:

  • Ask for continuous feedback from faculty on the issues they see affecting students both academically and socially
  • Coordinate with other campus offices to see how participation in other programs may be affecting attrition
  • Survey students who have already left campus to see what issues affected their decision to drop out or to not re-enroll

Identification: One system isn’t enough

Without knowing which students are at risk, there is simply no way to begin retaining them. But how can one strategy be effective in identifying all of the reasons students are leaving campus? It can’t.

Retention is truly a whole-campus issue, and as such, needs to be addressed by the whole campus to see significant results. This includes:

  • Systematically soliciting faculty and staff input to identify at-risk students;
  • Automatically generating early-alert information based on statistical data;
  • Building communication channels that foster student dialogue on their terms.

The right retention plan, if continuously monitored and improved with the three simple steps listed above, will help increase revenue, as well as graduation rates, and improve the student experience for all parties involved.

As the use of graduation rates as a key metric for funding and ranking continues to rise, colleges and universities must hone their retention plans. In addition to increasing revenue, a robust plan will ultimately increase graduation rates and improve the student experience for both retained students and their peers.

Andrew Dryden is the director of student success programs for Hobsons.

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