Retention, Retention, Retention

Student retention is central to the mission of higher education: graduating students with the skills and knowledge to be successful employees and members of society. Yet retention also impacts school finances, reputation, and rankings. Though application and enrollment numbers may be the first line of inquiry for recruitment and marketing departments, retention numbers are not far behind. Are the right students being accepted and enrolled? Is the first-year experience satisfying? Do students have the supports they need to succeed at college? Digging deeply into retention statistics and metrics can yield many data points that bring insights to make the changes that can increase retention and students success.

Retention Trends

Overall, the effect of the pandemic has seen retention numbers trending down, especially at 2-year institutions. Typically, during a recession, enrollment numbers go up, usually lifting the enrollment at 2-year colleges most, as their job-ready programs are very affordable. However, the pandemic has pulled registration down, and more for community colleges than for 4-year schools. Some of the most vulnerable students were impacted, with both enrollment and retention down at the less-expensive schools. POC and low-income students were more affected by the pandemic and had additional work or caregiving responsibilities that kept them from prioritizing education. The longer-term impacts of the pandemic on retention are unclear, but the hope is that economic recovery can reverse these trends. In addition, school and government programs can make it easier for students to stay in school.


Finding the Causes to Stem the Tide

Retention rates use time-limited completion rates for 2-year or 4-year schools to calculate statistics. Yet these numbers may not be telling the whole story of how and why students attend school. Adult learners may take significantly longer to complete degrees because of work and family needs. Many students may find that they have learned the skills they need before completing the degree to get good jobs. Many students return years later to complete a degree, after military service, having a family, or years in the labor force. So it may be unfair to colleges to rate them on these metrics alone. Exploring the underlying reasons students don’t continue could reveal important insights and new ways of looking at retention.

Lower-income and first-generation college students are some of the most at-risk of dropping out of school. They may also be the best people to help design programs and support that would give students the boost they need to succeed. A program started at Grand Valley State University gathers these students’ ideas and tests them out, implementing student-designed programs to decrease attrition. The pilot program results will be released so that other schools may learn from these insights as well.

Another way to find information on what causes drop-outs is to use an early detection system to catch students when their academics start to drop, which is predictive of drop-outs. In addition, early detection can give faculty and administrators a chance to determine what the students need, whether it is more academic support, a better “sense of belonging,” financial or social support, or a combination of these. While each student may have different needs, listening and reacting quickly can be the difference between a lost opportunity and a student who turns their performance in school around.


Faculty Engagement with Students

While supporting students through enrollment, registration, and advising is essential, if students can’t succeed in the classroom, they are headed for trouble. Faculty members are the first to notice a student not showing up for class, not turning in assignments, or struggling academically. According to Carl Strikwerda, writing in Inside Higher Ed, the departmental culture can significantly impact student retention. Innovative ways of reaching students in their academic work require more money funneled to departments to give faculty members the time, structures, and training to intervene to help at-risk students effectively. Departments with a culture of high engagement with students need to have all faculty members, even part-time and adjunct members, using best practices to stay in contact with students, especially during their first year in school.

The culture of an academic department may also influence students strongly because a “sense of belonging” is crucial for students to struggle through any challenges they face as they adjust to college. The social and intellectual environment can provide inclusive and welcoming services to help students adapt and access any needed assistance.


Online Learning and Retention

Some studies show that offering online courses can increase retention, while other research has shown that online learning can have lower retention rates than in-person courses. Online courses can make education cheaper and easier to fit into a busy life, and therefore advantageous for many students. However, the lack of connection that can happen during virtual and asynchronous can have a detrimental effect on some students. Online learning demands student connection with faculty to bridge the digital divide. For many students, opting for one or more classes online may help them complete their programs. But the outreach, tutoring, mentoring, personal attention, and social support that students need must be effectively translated to the online platforms. The trick is to leverage the advantages while mitigating the disadvantages of the online learning environments.


Implementing Retention Programs

Retention needs to be an ongoing effort at multiple points in the student journey, addressing the many concerns that may come up. The best approaches to retention are collaborative and multi-departmental, with good communication among specialists within the academy, the faculty, and the students themselves. Collecting detailed data to parse the reasons your institution has trouble hanging onto students will help you to design the appropriate measures to support student success from first inquiry through orientation and all the way through graduation.


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