Learn how to increase college retention in 2023 and what you can do proactively, starting with the , in order to keep students enrolled for the duration of their programs and thriving in a positive, inclusive and supportive learning environment.
You may feel that once students enroll and pay tuition, that you’ve successfully recruited them, and should shift your focus to next semester’s student recruitment, but that’s far from the truth! Retaining students and preventing dropouts throughout your institution are key in ensuring tomorrow’s leaders succeed on their educational path, and specific factors must be considered when evaluating how to increase college retention. Retention efforts are not limited to the students’ orientation and first year of study, but rather, should continue throughout a student’s academic journey at your institution. Retention efforts can be concentrated in , retention strategies and student benefits.
For instance, through partnering with BeMo's university student benefits program, educational institutions can increase their student retention and offer unparalleled benefits to their students. Students have access to BeMo's admissions consultants and career coaches to guide them through the admissions process of even the most competitive programs and help them with career planning.
Retaining college-level students is important because many students attend college with a specific career, or academic path, in mind. Here are a few reasons why college retention (and ensuring you’re able to retain most of your students) is vital:
It’s vital that colleges are able to retain students for the entire duration of their program in order to continue to contribute toward the academic and professional success each student is striving for, and, in order to uphold your institution’s reputation and appeal to other incoming students in the future.
Drop outs will occur, just as natural exists and turnover occur in every workplace, but if your numbers are high, something is wrong. This is why increasing retention is important, and why you must approach your retention strategies from a broad lens that addresses many factors that lead students to drop out. Retention is a continuous process, and may be unique from college-to-college, but in general, a few tweaks to current processes and additional support being offered can help tremendously.
In order to understand how you can retain students at your college, you must also understand why they are dropping out, and what can be done proactively to prevent that. There are five key areas of the college experience you can address to increase your college retention rates. These are:
- Student recruitment and welcome practices
- Student feedback opportunities
- Campus life and campus experiences
- School culture and student expectations
- Student services and support
One of the best ways to is to make sure your recruitment and are organized and informative. Students will choose to attend college to better themselves, to enhance their career possibilities, and to earn a designation. Whether they hope to continue in academic and attend graduate school, or have a career in mind, retaining them is important, and often this starts before they’re even enrolled in a program at your college.
When you visit high schools or other institution to recruit, or, have students visit open houses, show them what they want to know, and pay mind to where you may have been lacking. For example, if many students dropout due to feeling overwhelmed by course workloads or financial stress, make sure you tell prospective students what is expected of them.
Recruitment strategies hugely impact retention. There are many great as well as in-person events, but it’s key that the staff, students and faculty recruiting students are actively providing them with valuable resources and materials that discuss financial aid, available support and resources, and ‘what to expect’ in college. This can help students prepare and get adjusted to the idea of budgeting, applying for financial aid, and balancing work, life and school.
For student that do enroll, a great orientation is key in increasing retention as well. College can be an exciting, but scary, time, for both young and mature students! When a student officially accepts your offer to their program of choice, it’s absolutely essential that you begin including them in emails or newsletters, and even providing them with program-specific resources, information about orientation, course selection, and social media related to your campus and programs. Building the anticipation and providing them with enough information for an organized, smooth transition into your learning community—which for many, may be their first time communing to campus or living away from home— is a great way to promote inclusion.
Orientation is a very pivotal event—and often a determinant for how a student’s future at your college will play out! Orientation days help new students familiarize themselves with your campus, their programs and support services, and their peers. In addition to providing the opportunity for connection, it allows your institution with the chance to make an impact on each student and their future in their program at your institution.
If students feel that they aren’t welcome on campus, or that their program isn’t a good fit, they may panic and drop out. It’s important that they know which academic support services, as well as counselling, career and peer services are available, so that they don’t pull the plug hastily. Often, it’s easy enough for a college student to transfer to a new program, reduce their course load or take a semester off to rethink their path, but some students may not be aware of these possibilities.
Being inclusive and mindful of all preferences for activities, events, and clubs offered to students can also create great first impression can help retain your students. When deciding which activities to plan, all programs/clubs and groups should strive to align with your institution’s core values, as they pertain to inclusivity and promoting diversity, and include options like coffee shop meet ups, study clubs, accessible socials, or niche-specific groups…not every student will enjoy loud sporting events or mixers and crowded parties, and it’s important to include all students.
It’s important that you take time to understand your student’s perspectives and hear their opinions about courses, faculty, your college as a whole, systems and processes, and campus culture. This should be encouraged, as it can help increase retention.
Student assessments can be carried out in a number of ways, including course- conducted assessments or optional surveys, most of which are usually anonymous. Formative assessments that are course-specific are always beneficial, but outside of the classroom, students can be encouraged to submit feedback on their student/academic portals, or, even to a specific office on campus. Keeping an open-door policy and letting students know that they matter and are encouraged to provide feedback, complaints or insight is key in identifying possible reasons that students may dropout.
With various types of data collected, colleges can strategize and target a certain thing that needs to be addressed in order to increase student satisfaction, and retention. For example, if many students appear to be struggling or unhappy in a specific course, discussing it with a faculty member, or restricting the syllabus, may be worthwhile. If students are unhappy with a campus operation, let them know that you’re listening and striving to meet their needs. Additionally, advisors and counsellors can offer more targeted approaches to helping students who report a specific difficulty with a course or a part of campus life, such as financial aid or mental health. Having access to a to help tackle personal and academic issues will prove beneficial for students.
If you want to increase college retention, a great strategy to do so is to ensure your students enjoy what your campus offers. Fun experiences, clubs, events, mentorship and peer support opportunities, as well as industry specific networking events.
In general, most students want to feel as though they’re a part of a learning community at their college, as well as in their program, and they want to know that other people care about their experiences. In order for students to remain enrolled in their program, they need to be supported along the way through all of their years at your college.
First year students may struggle to navigate a new environment where they learn, live, play, and even work. College is an exciting and busy time, and this can be overwhelming, especially for students who have not yet experienced living away from home, or, rigorous studying requirements. That is why engaging with students early on, even prior to their first-year orientation, and continuing to offer opportunities to engage throughout their academic journey, is a great way to get students to continually enroll in courses and complete their program.
Some ways to offer fun and rewarding experiences include: agency and career-shadowing experience, free , networking mixers, social mixers, games and events like ‘frosh’ week or end of year carnivals, campus concerts, guest speakers in different faculties or areas (authors or public figures) campfire nights, hikes, coffee house clubs, comedy, poetry or live music open mic nights, impromptu giveaways or scheduled contests, social media groups, and special interest clubs that can appeal to a wide variety of students. Along with this, peer tutor clubs and study groups are a great way for students to access support and connect with others about their course materials.
A bad experience with a faculty member can ruin a student’s perception of their college experience, and can even be an eventual deciding factor that a student considers when debating whether or not to drop out.
Faculty, sessional or tenured, along with staff, food service employees, and advisors on your college campus should be hired with the understanding that they align with the campus culture, mission and values, and will be supportive, insightful, and accessible to students. At the end of the day, your college operates for the students, and they matter the most. The best staff, faculty and instructors can inspire students and motivate them to overcome challenges and put their best foot forward, even during tough times, sometimes by simply showing up and teaching with visible passion and expertise, and other times by reaching out and offering support, or having an open-door policy for feedback and communication. Feeling supported can motivate students to stay in their program, especially if they don’t have a lot of peer or familial support.
#5: Make Academic Advising, Financial Aid, and Additional Support Services Accessible and Normalized
Academic advisors are responsible for the personal, academic and professional development of students, including their graduation planning and career exploration, and can also help direct students to other forms of advising, such as financial, or, mental health help. Additionally, they can advocate for students who require additional supports, such as a note taker or separate test taking space. They also help students identify academic opportunities such as special scholarships or grants that will benefit them during their time at the school.
A known is having dedicated academic advisors, as their service is truly invaluable, but, many students do not know how to find an appropriate advisor, or, some faculties have only a handful of advisors for several thousand students! For these reasons, ensure that your academic advisors are well trained, motivated, and accessible in a variety of ways. Aside from allowing students to schedule an appointment during office hours (which can be limiting), offer virtual sessions, phone calls, or even pre-recorded Q&A sessions or written guides that can help answer some very common questions and save time to increase both the efficiency of your advisors, and student retention.
Along with academic advising, students who are struggling, or, who are hoping to pursue graduate or professional school, can benefit from academic consultation and preparatory services, as well as the opportunity to access things like financial aid without worrying about a stigma that may be attached to ‘seeking help and funding’. Too often, some students may feel as though their dream of finishing college isn’t realistic because they’re in debt, or, they may feel their plans to attend graduate school should detail because they’ve struggled academically and don’t know . This is why it’s important to share information about financial aid options, such as scholarships, bursaries, and on-campus employment, as well as counselling services, mental health services, and academic advising and consulting, with students throughout their entire college journey—from the time they first apply, until they graduate! Normalizing the fact that we all need support in our lives, especially during our college years, and telling students how to access it, is key in retaining them.
Outside of your school’s academic advising services, having academic consulting services, like , advertised and accessible for students can not only help retain them at your institution, but help propel them toward the educational and career path they’ve been dreaming of and working toward. Students who are hoping to attend another post-secondary institution in their future will benefit tremendously from speaking to a professional consultant who can help them understand various application processes, such as , and help best prepare them for crucial tests that are components of some applications and cover topics like like the or . The process of applying to graduate or professional school can be overwhelming to a busy college student, and the support offered by separate academic consulting services is unmatched, and can be especially useful in institutions that are facing long wait times for academic advisors or if students require more extensive, on-going 1-on-1 interactions. This is particularly beneficial in ensuring students stay enrolled, and are able to continue their educational journey.
Student retention should be a priority for all higher education institutions, because students come first, and they all require support—whether academic, financial, peer, or personal. Many of the stress that is important to focus on creating a positive student experience so it can lead to academic satisfaction and increase retention in colleges, and this includes fostering an inclusive and welcoming college environment and culture, and allowing students to enjoy their time in and out of the classroom. In particular, students from underrepresented groups, first-generation students, or visible minorities and disabled students may face barriers when it comes to finding support, financial aid, and many students also struggle with maintaining a healthy work-life balance during their college years. Having a diverse, inclusive, and student-oriented supportive learning community is a great way to increase student retention.
1. What does student retention mean?
Student retention refers to the number of students who complete their program at your institution and graduate from their program without withdrawing at any given time. Keeping students enrolled requires some strategy and, above all else, a supportive learning environment.
2. Why is student retention important?
Student retention is important in colleges for many reasons. First, for student that drops out, your institution is losing money. Second, students are wasting their own time and money if they drop out (as tuition is, in most cases, non-refundable, unless they withdraw very early in their first year. Third, your reputation will be at stake, and finally, as a higher education institution, your college should be cheering for students to succeed…and helping them all do so by offering the services they need and support they require in order to succeed academically.
3. As long as most students graduate, I don’t need to revisit my college’s retention strategies, is that correct?
Retention practices are continuous and should always be updated, modernized, and revisited accordingly. Your school will always have natural withdraws and dropouts—it happens—however, you should pay attention to your dropout rates, as well as the reasons why students chose to drop out. Conducting surveys among current and former students, and even prospective ones, to try and gauge what services and support they require, as well as what they hope to gain from attending your college specifically, is a good way to help you decide where to start, and what to implement and update, so that you can increase retention, or, maintain your current, good retention rate.
4. If a college has a low retention rate, can it be fixed?
Yes. It may require some strategic analysis, planning, and work, but a low retention rate can be fixed if the right factors are considered and strategies are implemented to make students feel supported—financially, academically, and emotionally/personally—and make them determined to complete their program.
5. Is orientation a retention strategy?
Yes! But, it isn’t the only way you can retain students. Retention spans far beyond a student’s first year, and orientation materials and events are just as vital as onboarding a new employee is—it sets a tone, it reveals expectations, and it can make or break their experience and perception of their institution—however, it doesn’t stop there.
6. How can I increase retention at my college? Where do I start?
Start with your current recruitment strategy, and work from there! Offering information and pre-college experiences, whether virtually on campus, peer-led or college-led, as well as financial aid and information resources can help students determine whether or not they are prepared for college, and can help them visualize what the experience will be like. Organizing a fun, memorable, and inclusive orientation day/week is a great way to welcome students and start things off on a good note. Ensuring that students have ample networking and mentorship opportunities beyond their first year, dedicated faculty and staff who embrace a supportive culture, and normalizing/promoting academic advising, along with resources, support and guidance to students who are struggling with their academics, personal struggles or finances are all great ways to retain students.
7. I want to implement better practices for student retention, where should I start?
Start by looking at your current strategies and practices, as well as relevant data, such as your current dropout rate. Reassess what’s being done (or, isn’t being done) and don’t forget to include student feedback and conduct surveys so that when you craft a new retention strategy, you’ll be doing so with your student’s needs and requests in mind.
8. How do I retain upper-year students?
Students dropping out in their upper years is unfortunate, and is often preventable. Offering resources in addition to financial aid and advising, such as academic consulting, to students can help them realign their future path and set goals, and, it can help take some of the stress out of application processes and interviews. Students who become discouraged throughout their program, perhaps who have a low GPA or feel overwhelmed by the thought of accomplishing their career goals, are at risk for dropping out of their program entirely and abandoning their dreams. Academic advising can help students with their current studies and barriers to an extent, however, academic consulting is more of a preparatory service that helps students approach interviews, exams, and multi-step applications with confidence, which can be great for third- and fourth-year students who are very close to crossing their college finish line!