This blog arose from a discussion forum in which members of the Jenzabar community discussed student retention and the need to drive persistence.
In higher education media outlets, a message has been blasting on repeat: Institutions need to focus on student retention. During a discussion forum with members of the Jenzabar community—many of whom are on the front lines of student retention efforts—those present agreed that institutions are actively focusing on retention. They also agreed that, despite this focus, issues persist.
Breaking Down Student Retention Challenges
In discussing student retention challenges, two main issues came to the fore. The first, unsurprisingly, was higher education affordability. Students across the board are struggling to pay for college, which is keeping them from returning to school. The second issue was communication. Students aren’t letting faculty and staff know they are struggling. In fact, many of those in enrollment and academic success are unaware a student is having issues until that student doesn’t turn up the next semester. To make matters even more frustrating, our community said, staff feel powerless to combat this issue.
“Improving student retention is an institution-wide undertaking,” said session moderator and Jenzabar’s Director of Product Management, Jeff Elliott. “Change, when it happens, needs to occur from the top down. But change is hard, and changing the approach to retention can be difficult to do.”
According to Elliott, institutions that want to retain more students need to do one fundamental thing: understand the difference between viewing retention as an institutional success strategy and viewing retention as a student success strategy.
Retention as an Institutional Success Strategy
When institutions view student retention as a determiner of institutional success, they tend to examine retention and its impact on college financials first and foremost. Viewing student retention through this lens can lead institutions to not only misunderstand the issues affecting student persistence, but also to implement measures that negatively impact student retention.
“Take financial holds or fees for instance,” said Elliott. “A student might have a hold placed on their registration because they have a negative balance, or they might not be able to afford registration fees. Not allowing a student to register for another semester because they owe a few hundred dollars is an example of an institution considering its own success before it considers its students’ success.”
This type of mindset—which can result in a student leaving higher education altogether— also doesn’t help an institution’s brand, especially if that school is a smaller, regional institution that is competing with many similar-sized schools as well as larger institutions. This impact on an institution’s brand could end up harming new student enrollments as well.
Retention as a Student Success Strategy
Since focusing on student success requires institutions to consider the student first and foremost, viewing retention through the lens of student success can be incredibly effective in helping students persist.
Let’s look at an example. One institution was attempting to improve retention by reaching out to students who weren’t enrolling in consecutive semesters and sending them a warning letter. The challenge with this approach was that the institution was looking at student retention as an institutional success issue, one that impacted its bottom line. In this case, however, the students identified weren’t necessarily at risk of dropping out; many were taking a semester off to work and were saving money to re-enroll. Another challenge had to do with student perception. By receiving warning letters, instead of letters of support, students perceived that the institution was more concerned with its success than with theirs. The result was as expected: Retention issues persisted.
After identifying the problem with its approach, the institution shifted its mindset to consider student success. It used analytics to take a deeper look at its student population and discovered eight different at-risk personas. The institution then crafted eight different types of letters, each offering varying levels of support to the unique student cohorts. Retention rates began to improve.
Viewing retention as a student success strategy can also help institutions approach sensitive issues such as student financial struggles with more empathy. If a student is $300 short of making a tuition payment that semester, for example, they may put off their registration. But by focusing on that student’s success, institutions might find a creative way to help that student overcome a $300 gap—through work-study or similar programs—and stay enrolled.
“The bottom line is that institutions need to talk to their students,” said Elliott. “Individual students have individual problems that need to be addressed to ensure their success. If you can communicate with students and help solve their problems, you can keep those students enrolled.”
Understanding the Mathematics of Student Retention
According to Jenzabar Assistant Manager of Analytics Mathew Arndt, there’s a relatively straightforward way to ensure both the institution and its students succeed: Do the math.
“If a student is struggling to make a tuition payment, by how much are they struggling?” Arndt asked. “If it’s a $7,000 tuition payment and a student can’t find that last thousand, the university is losing $6,000 in potential revenue if it fails to help that student, not to mention all of the potential revenue from future terms.”
This is not to say that every case of financial struggle can be overcome. At some point, a student can become an untenable consumer. In many instances, however, better communication and a bit of leniency in the name of student success can go a long way toward improving student retention.
Colleges and universities want their students to succeed, and they are trying different things to ensure that success. But if those tactics aren’t producing results, institutions may want to examine their approaches to discover whether they are viewing retention as an institutional success strategy or as a student success strategy.
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