Retention Flows from Relationships
How we conceptualize retention carries implications for how to improve it. This Executive Briefing provides a senior-level summary of an evidence-based way to think about retention. Related briefings focus on interim tactical and long-term strategic actions to retain students to a successful conclusion of their course of study.
I suspect that we all see retention-to-graduation as the sweet spot of convergence among the diverse and sometimes conflicting values held by higher education’s stakeholders. Students, instructors, deans, administrators, financial officers, regulators, and the public are all pleased with a high graduation rate. These same stakeholders see failure when students who have spent a great deal of time and money end up failing to secure desired credentials.
No one should be surprised that so many students fail to graduate. We do little to acknowledge their existence, much less help them succeed. On the enrollment side, a prospective student may or may not be able to secure the assistance of a competent and dedicated enrollment advisor who will help them work thorough the thicket of rules, requirements, and the many up and downsides associated with various degree paths. Anyone who doubts this claim argues against good evidence. We have been shopping enrollment behavior for more than decade. More than half of the programs into which we drop a phone call or an email inquiry never respond to that inquiry! For those that do respond, only a small proportion do so competently. Nonetheless, the persistent will eventually find a way to enroll. The others will enroll in a school that ignores them less or not at all. I have been told by many college leaders that needing to fend form themselves screens for students who will succeed. This thinking begs for evidence since the highest drop out rates tend to be associated with schools that provide the fewest pre- and post-matriculation support services. Once admitted, students advance to the next wave of being ignored. In spite of the fact that many admitted students will not show up for the first day of class (admit to matriculate rate), these gap students typically wait it out without benefit of preparatory support from the institution. Finally, those who matriculate are then ignored by everyone but some of their instructors unless they fail to pay a bill or submit a required form at which time they receive d a great deal of attention. For most universities, no one is responsible for developing and advancing a caring and helpful relationship with students. I cannot think of another place to spend from $50,000 to more than $200,000 only to be ignored by people whose livelihood depends on my tuition.
Thinking about Retention - What Does the Evidence Tell Us?
This conversation is about elective drops. We all recognize that people move, change jobs, or experience other disruptive life events that necessitate dropping our of a degree program. There is no shortage of views on how to think about and improve retention. Looking back over 30 years of systems development, I see that my views have evolved from what might be called "an economist's view" in which my focus was on aligning incentives, to my current "psychologist's view" in which I find it useful to understand the dynamics of retention, including the event horizon of the decision to drop out.
We have achieved the highest rates of retention to graduation by implementing a structurally integrated approach to creating and maintaining quality relationships with students. By students, I mean all students, not only those tagged as likely to fail. The primary goal of building these relationships (there are benefits unrelated to retention) is ensuring that students reach out for help at the very moment they perceive themselves to be at risk and are in the early stages of contemplating the benefits of dropping out.
- The most robust way to think about elective drops, whether pending or in process, is as critical events that are essentially unpredictable in relation to their event horizon.
- The period between the beginning and the end of the drop decision is generally very short, often less than one week. A vague concern about "making it" can emerge Friday afternoon (perhaps upon struggling with a project) and progress to an irreversible drop decision by Monday.
- Although the objective evidence is less impressive than is generally believed, the predictive models currently in favor exceed chance levels in identifying students at at risk for dropping. However, these models are silent as to when the dropwill occur and when they do offer these predictions, they do not exceed chance levels predicting within the drop event horizon. In addition, adverse consequences are associated to the high number of false positives and negatives produced by these approaches. I would encourage anyone contemplating software-based predictive modeling systems to have a measurement scientist examine the true discriminant validity of these solutions. Chances are these data will not be available.
For the reasons identified above, I do not recommend predictive modeling as a solution to improving retention.
- The best method for reducing elective drops, especially in cases where these potential drops would go on to be successful, is by ensuring that students enjoy a growing relationship with a single retention counselor. The nature of the relationship should be such that it is natural and expected that the student will reach out for help at the exact moment help is needed. Another Briefing will address this in more detail.
- The return-on-investment ratios for well designed and correctly implemented retention management systems can easily exceed 50:1 in larger institutions. Even at ROI ratios in the low 20's, if improving retention rates by 20% adds $3M to top line revenue, the sunk and first year incremental costs to achieve these financial gains will be in the area of $100K. The exact ratios and expenses will be determined by a number of factors, including the capabilities of your current CRM system.
Those who think that developing quality relationships with students is too costly and not warranted, might also think that the high touch concierge services, now standard practice in the most profitable hospitals, reflects bad decisions by hospital administrators. Perhaps they know something we don't.