5 Ways to Increase Student Retention

Proud son mother graduating increasing student retention
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One key aspect to prioritize when evaluating university performance is student retention.

If your student retention metrics are low or declining, it can negatively affect your school’s reputation, reduce tuition income, and, most importantly, indicate a failure to effectively educate some students.

On a brighter side, tracking and influencing student retention statistics has become more accessible through analytics and engagement technologies. However, amidst the overwhelming data, figuring out the most effective actions to take can be challenging. To help you navigate this, we’ve put together five steps you can implement to enhance student retention.

The following student retention strategies have been included in this list because researchers and admins have found them to be the most effective. You’ll notice a common thread throughout this article: A not-so-gentle nudge towards data-driven admin decision making. The more administrators understand their students’ preferences and requirements, the more prepared they will be to offer meaningful support and remove barriers to timely graduation.

Five ways to increase student retention

1. Collect Data

Acting without collecting data points that reveal the factors influencing student retention can result in blindly implementing strategies. With the right data gathering strategies, your engagement tactics can shift from guesswork to genuine efficiency.

Nevertheless, managing and distributing this data in an effective way can be challenging. In this article of EDUCAUSE Review, Richard Sluder explores how Middle Tennessee State University handles this challenge through regular updates and wide distribution of knowledge:

“The Student Success Group ensures that MTSU identifies, measures, and regularly tracks key performance metrics. This drives our strategy. Many universities have similar reports. But at MTSU, there are a few key distinctions. First, reports containing key performance measures are produced weekly and distributed widely to all members of the leadership team. A second difference at MTSU is the expectation that every key leader knows their numbers. This means that everyone from deans to advisor managers has an obligation to know how their area is performing — at all times!” 

Student retention in higher education can be highly influenced by each department – provided that each department has access to real-time data about how their students are performing academically.

2. Test Assumptions

 We’ve all heard the adage, “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.” But it is still easy to fall into the same process of looking at the same old metrics and coming up with a slightly different spin on the same old college student retention strategies, month after month, year after year. Sometimes it’s best to start fresh, find new data, and test assumptions that were made long ago to see what new tactics emerge.

One strategy to improve student retention is “incremental innovation”: consistently starting small initiatives that will add to the information and efforts surrounding student retention. While MTSU achieved this through enhancements to their advising software and a new degree audit package, incremental innovation is not limited to a specific technology — it can involve new processes or even new ways of gathering student feedback.

This approach may not have the immediate results of other splashier approaches to encourage student success. However, incremental innovation allows admins to iterate and improve processes to develop long-term college student retention best practices.

3. Plan for the Entire Student Journey

It’s common knowledge that students in their first year, or even first semester, are at the most risk of leaving the university. But did you know that 10% of students who leave before graduation actually have 90% of the credits they need towards their degree? And 20% who didn’t graduate had 75% of their credits towards the degree. These findings from an analysis done on 53 institutions by Civitas Learning, point to the importance of targeted advising and outreach strategies towards the end of the degree, and not only in the beginning of a student’s relationship with the academic institution.

Guidance towards the end of a degree can make all the difference when it comes to student retention. 

4. Provide More Paths to Graduation

The students of a few decades ago and today’s college students are completely different people. Nowadays students enter school at various points in their lives, juggling a variety of roles and jobs. But are we changing the options available to these students to ensure that they are able to complete their degree? Online classes and better support for part-time students can help.

In fact, simply offering online courses can increase student retention, as shown by a study from Arizona State University. Online courses are associated with increased retention, graduation rates, and cost savings of as much as 50%. Another interesting statistic from the same study pointed out that “at Houston Community College (HCC), for example, retention for first-time freshmen was 9-10 percentage points higher among students who took an online or blended course.”

Increasing access and support for part-time students is particularly important to increase student retention rates among minority groups. While part-time students generally graduate at lower rates, this rate is even lower for black and Hispanic students? A new report from EAB concluded that enrolling in part-time classes reduced graduation rates for Hispanic and black students by 39% and 31% respectively, while the same stat was 29% for white students. Improving the support available to these part-time students can be a crucial strategy for improving student retention rates.

5. Targeted Communication

Simply having more opportunities to talk to at-risk students has an incredible impact on retention rates. The Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin has found that more frequent and intensive advising increases student retention. For Georgia State University, for example, a $2 million per year investment in additional academic advisors led to a growth of 20 percentage points in graduation rates.

In the same study, the length of advising seemed to have an impact on retention rates. Students who met with an advisor for longer than 30 minutes at a time had higher engagement scores compared to students who met for a period between 16-30 minutes. It also matters who is advising the student and the criteria in which a student is required to see an advisor. New strategies in both of these areas caused three-year graduation rates for Cleveland State Community College to increase from 14% to 22%.

But advising isn’t the only way you can increase student retention. What if you could send personalized, targeted push notifications to students on their phones based on their major, status, year, club interests, and more? What if you could offer the services they need based on their course load and level of engagement? campusM student engagement platform can achieve this with our unique profiles and roles features. With the right tools engaging students on their most frequently used devices, communicating with students no longer has to be as challenging as trying to get students to open emails. You can increase access to advising services and have instant contact with at-risk students with a powerful, useful campus library mobile app solution.

Matthew Sherlock
Product Strategy Director at campusM
Matthew Sherlock has been working for 18 years in the education sector and spent most of that time as a technology evangelist with the ability to identify where technologies can facilitate and add value. In his spare time, Matt potters (literally) in the shed and garage trying to make things out of clay and wood… with mixed success. He happily spends the rest of his time with his wife, son and 3 lovely doggies.
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