Keep Them Coming Back: Student Retention Strategies

With all of the effort that typically goes into recruiting new students, it makes sense to put at least as much energy into retaining them. Retention strategies have been used to increase degree completion in higher education for many years. Successful retention also affects the school’s financial stability, student morale, and other important factors. Despite the fact that most colleges and universities understand that retention is important, Habley and McClanahan (2004) report that:
  • Only 40.7 percent of community college campuses have identified an individual responsible for coordinating retention strategies,
  • Only 27.2 percent of campuses have established an improvement goal for retention of students from the first to second year, and
  • Only 19.9 percent of campuses have established a goal for improved degree completion.

The good news is that several colleges have developed innovative programs to help with student retention. For example, Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights, MN, features a Finish What You Start program that encourages students to finish their education and meet their academic goals. According to a report from the Huffington Post, the program includes "learning communities," where a single group of students takes a cluster of courses together that all center on a common theme or field of study. This seems to help the individuals work through some of the typical difficulties that might otherwise lead to overwhelm and frustration.

Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, OH, where this writer teaches, has an Access Center that coordinates retention efforts with faculty surveys and midterm grade reports, along with a variety of early intervention seminars and workshops. Professors are also encouraged to refer students who have been consistently late to class, unprepared, or who showed other signs of losing interest. This article will review some of the important steps that your institution can take to ensure that you keep as many students successfully and happily enrolled as possible.

Early Warning Systems
A good way to begin improving the retention process is to identify at-risk students as early as possible and refer them to advisors, counselors, or mentors. Sometimes students who do not fit the typical at-risk category encounter academic, financial, or personal obstacles and might slip through the cracks and go unnoticed. A typical early-warning system might include a faculty feedback form that includes such information as a student’s difficulties with course material, perceived lack of motivation, failure to complete assignments or attend classes, medical conditions, financial problems, family or personal life problems, and suspected substance abuse. Following are some tips for faculty, staff, and administration:

Tips for Faculty
  • All faculty members should identify and contact students who appear to be having academic problems. Faculty members are also encouraged to report the information to counseling staff.
  • Let students know they are missed when they don’t come to class. Allow them a reasonable opportunity to catch up. Some institutions ask the professor or lecturer to contact [by phone or email] a student who has missed more than one week of class to find out if there is anything he or she can do to help get that student back on track.
  • Make class assignments useful, not mere exercises. Practical and useful assignments that relate to the necessary skills are much more popular than rote bookwork. Allow students to determine part of the content of special interest courses when possible.

Tips for Staff and Administration
  • Require all school personnel to make a contribution to retention. Too often only a small number of administrators help with retention. Everyone on campus can contribute. 

  • Appoint a retention committee. Retention policy is often divided between several administrators, some of whom do not put much effort in it. A coordinating committee can make sure that there is an effective strategy and continuity. The college should establish specific and measurable retention goals for the current and next year, along with benchmarks for how long it should take each student to graduate.

  • The college should find ways to be more student-friendly. Provide customer relations training for all institutional personnel. Don’t screen calls unnecessarily. Make class schedules simple, brief, and uncluttered. Assign functional names to buildings to make them easier to find. Display exhibits of student learning and make an effort to communicate the good news about student achievement to parents and to local media personnel. 

  • The college could survey advisors and students on why students leave programs and determine where they go. The college could also distribute exit surveys to recent graduates or those who voluntary quit school.

  • Allow students to provide critical feedback on any aspect of campus life, including academics, parking, food service quality, etc. Make sure that several administrators examine the feedback and that the data is made available to other faculty and staff.

  • Provide convenient, responsive channels for student complaints and suggestions. If students are disappointed with instruction, housing, food services, or other aspects, they need an outlet for the expression of their concerns. A quick solution, or at least some good listening, will prevent the upset student from sharing their complaint with friends and family.
  • Keep up with the current trends in college retention. What innovative techniques are being used elsewhere that your school could try? Oppositely, what are the main reasons why students are not being retained elsewhere?

  • Place students in the correct introductory math, science, or English courses. Students with a lack of preparation need to be guided to a remedial course or to individual tutoring so they don’t flunk out too early.

  • Find ways to get parents involved. You may also want to consider publishing a quarterly parent newsletter, initiating a way that students allow parents to review their academic progress. Start a parents’ day celebration to take place twice per academic year.

  • Encourage the various departments to develop their own student handbooks that help explain some of the challenges that new students often face.
  • Study competing institutions to determine their advantages and disadvantages. Compare fees, personnel, and facilities. Students can help identify competing institutions that they considered before enrolling in yours. This can result in the correction of weaknesses and better publicity of strengths.
  • Consider adding a new, high-demand majors. When I taught at Butte Community College in northern California, I was on the committee that began a new Multimedia Studies department. This field was and is in high demand, and the department quickly grew.

  • Having a winning sports team usually helps boost student morale. If this is not possible, there are some other options. For example, you could establish a tourist attraction on your campus. This could include a regional or specialized museum, significant art event, planetarium, or music festival. All of these can be a source of pride that helps to retain students.
  • Offer first-year seminars and workshops on time management, study skills, and career exploration. 
  • Finally, create a culture of positive regard for even the most at-risk students and a commitment to remedial and developmental education.

Maintain a consistent effort to retain students. By combining several of these ideas, you will probably find that your institution is able to retain a much higher percentage of your students.

Rick Sheridan’s background as a writer includes news and feature articles published by the St. Petersburg Times, Chicago Sun-Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, EDUCAUSE, Teaching for Success, and by United Press International He is currently an assistant professor of communications at Wilberforce University in Ohio. Rick can be contacted through his website.

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