Retention – The Challenge That Perplexes

As institutions across the country try to navigate through COVID, increased competition, declines in prospective student pools, ever changing regulations, student/parent needs, cost containment/revenue generation demands, and a myriad of other issues, the importance and challenge of retaining students has never been greater. 

It is not as though steps to improve retention have not been taken. How many of these things apply to your institution?

  • Services for students have been enhanced and expanded.
  • Co-curricular opportunities have been increased to foster real engagement.
  • New academic programs have been added.
  • Experiential learning has been hard wired into degree requirements.
  • Campus facilities have been renovated and improved.
  • Financial aid packages have become more individualized and competitive.
  • Technology is being leveraged to assess, support, and serve students.
  • Efforts to make the student experience rich and meaningful are a campus focus.

 If your institution has done these types of things and your retention rate is flat or declining, what can you do? One place to start is to consider the following questions:

  • What do your students really see as the strengths and shortcomings of your campus?
  • If your students were to honestly describe the culture of your campus, would that description align with how the institution publicly portrays itself?
  • What campus improvements need to be made to make the student experience better?
  • What are the specific things about the campus experience that students cite when asked why they stay?
  • How much time do you spend learning about the students who persist and seem truly connected to the institution?
  • How can you involve those students in meaningful recruitment and retention efforts?
  • Why do students really leave and where do they go?
  • What simple changes could have the biggest impact on student satisfaction?

While these questions may seem basic, many institutions neglect spending the needed time on answering them. As a result, retention initiatives developed without the needed due diligence run the risk of missing the mark.

Having served as a student affairs senior staff member at both public and private institutions for over three decades, I know all too well how critical retention plans and their implementation are to an institution’s stability and success. While retention plans need to be specific to the institution and its students, the following actions are some examples of ones that provided meaningful results at my previous institutions:

  • Regularly assess student perceptions of the campus experience to better understand what they consider most important and what they are most and least satisfied with. Continually adjust programs, services, activities, and facilities based on that feedback.
  • Engage all employees in proactively utilizing an early warning system to identify students who are having difficulty personally or academically. Reach out to those students to offer services and support as quickly as possible.
  • Directly involve students in planning campus improvements and shaping the campus environment. Create renovation/maintenance/sustainability plans that make clear student input was heard.
  • Involve students in discussions about institutional finances so they have the opportunity to learn about all the factors that impact the cost of higher education.
  • Expand student employment opportunities to foster a stronger and lasting connection between the student and the institution.
  • Increase opportunities for students to serve locally, nationally, and internationally as part of their academic program. Encourage students to design and lead service programs.
  • Involve faculty and staff in activities with students outside the classroom to foster mentoring relationships.

Again, I realize these may seem like elementary things, but far too often campuses do not make them the priorities they need to be. As a result, students can feel that they are not a priority. We must remind ourselves daily that making students and their campus experience the focus is essential to an institution’s success.

Given the changing student demographics and the challenges facing the higher education environment, there is a critical need for institutions to understand who they are, what they want to be, and how they can continuously improve the student experience. Dutcher LLC would welcome the opportunity to hear about your students, campus, and goals to see if they can help in your efforts to retain students and create a transformational student experience.