Increasing Student Retention: Some Strategies

Right now, student retention is one of the biggest topics in higher education. Since the economic downturn in 2008, graduation rates have dropped and few higher education professionals know how to effectively address the issue. As it stands now, only 66 percent of four-year public universities and 54 percent of private institutions have developed actionable plans to improve student retention rates. What can higher education professionals do to address student retention?

To understand declining student retention rates, it’s critical to understand why students choose to leave school. According to a paper published by Oakton Community College, only 20–30 percent of the students who leave college do so because of academic difficulties. The other 70–80 percent leave due to the cost, isolation, social difficulties or unclear expectations.

While the reasons students leave school are many and varied, these are the most common. By understanding these unique challenges, higher education staff can develop innovative and efficient programs to boost retention rate and help students stay in school.


Teach Student Habits For Students

Many students abandon colleges or universities because they don’t understand what is expected of them or are unfamiliar with the resources the university offers. Because of this, it’s critical for universities to make campus resources available to students through convocation, orientation and first-year seminars.

Additionally, universities need to ensure that students understand what GPAs keep them in good academic standing, and what activities and opportunities they can participate in to become more involved with the university.

Develop Small Goals

Right now, only 53 percent of public colleges have definable goals for student retention. Unfortunately, universities that don’t set goals have a harder time measuring success and putting effective programs in place. Because of this, it’s critical for schools to establish goals for student retention and degree attainment. By first breaking these goals down to programs, courses and departments, universities can develop effective programs that can then be scaled to encompass the entire university.

Teach Collect Data and Put It to Good Use

To address the problem of low student retention rates, universities must gather data on program effectiveness, student achievement and resource allocation. Once this data has been collected, it can serve to enhance student retention efforts intelligently year after year. A good way to collect data is to use a student management system.

Develop Intervention Programs

One of the most efficient ways to improve student retention is to reach at-risk students before they leave the university. Institutions like Beaufort County Community College do this by implementing an early alert student referral program: Students who are experiencing academic, personal, financial or social problems receive a letter informing them of the college’s resources and available workshops that can help them address the issue at hand.

Define “Student Success”

When a university builds a shared vision of student success, it becomes easier for students to identify with the goal, while also allowing the institution to allocate and organize resources to support the goal of student success.

Define Combine the Strength of All Resources 

Student retention is a large issue, and it’s one that universities will continue to struggle addressing unless all available resources are used. This means combining the power of professors who first notice student absences with that of financial aid officers able to implement creative financial solutions and student affairs specialists who can put an at-risk student in touch with available resources. By crafting a comprehensive approach to student retention, universities can be more effective and students can reap the benefits of increased support.

Offer Ample Opportunities for Success

Students who feel that college is a Sisyphean task are likely to leave, so it’s critical for universities to provide students with ample opportunities for success. This means setting high but achievable expectations and helping students set goals that support achievement.

Focus on Building Community

Establishing community both in and out of the classroom is an effective way to build a network for students, which squashes feelings of isolation. A sense of community can also support healthy study habits and high academic performance.

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