In the long term, it will be decisively in your institution's academic, financial, and operational interests to create a comprehensive approach for managing retention with precision.
What to Do While Gearing Up for a Comprehensive Approach
In the near term, you may not be ready for a comprehensive approach to managing and improving retention. You might be looking for smaller, one-off changes that will increase retention while your institution is working through the administrative and governance processes needed to clear the way for a more efficient structural approach.
While comprehensive retention management programs can produce very high ROI ratios, adding millions of dollars to your institution's revenue stream, less comprehensive efforts can also produce relatively high returns, even if the magnitude of effect is less. All levels of effort can improve student satisfaction, institutional effectiveness, and quality referrals.
Steps You Can Take to Achieve Near-term Gains in Retention
- Direct marketing and enrollment to focus on students you can serve effectively from matriculation to graduation. Enrolling the wrong students is bad practice on several levels. A growing proportion of inappropriately enrolled and subsequently ignored students will drop before they attain the point of financial break-even in your program and well before they attain their personal goals. This classic “lose/lose” outcome (you would have been ahead financially to have denied admission/they failed to meet their goals and associate that failure with your institution) is unfortunate for all, especially when creating a win/win environment is less costly.
- Identify each student’s operational definition of success in your program. What are their goals, purposes, and symbols of a successful outcome? In most settings it does not require a structural change to add a step in which enrollment counselors work with incoming students to identify and refine goals into incrementally measurable criteria to which appropriate metrics are attached.
- Require a “warm hand-off” between each student’s enrollment counselor and whatever role you have in place for post-matriculation retention management (academic adviser, dedicated retention counselor, etc.). A warm hand-off is achieved by making a three-way emotional connection between the new student, the enrollment counselor, and the post-matriculation person. That connection is typically made by a three-way telephone conversation or, if appropriate, in person.
- Make certain that every new student has not only the name of the post-matriculation counselor but has entered his or her mobile phone number and email into their smartphone. Create incentives for this level of connection. A web link, which may include a Facebook or Twitter connection, may also be appropriate.
- Keep in touch with students proactively. Eliminate business rules that reach out to students only when there is an error or you need something from them. Students should feel that they are connected with someone representing the institution for reasons related to caring.
In most colleges and universities - including those that include "caring" in their mission - students report that the only time they hear from the institution is when someone has made a mistake or the school needs something from them.
- Interview recently and voluntarily departed students to learn why they left. NB: You need skilled interviewers to do this. Surveys will be misleading because the presenting reason is seldom the one that motivated the drop. This kind of assessment should be a continuous background research activity.
- Interview and track the reasons for thinking about dropping expressed by students you were able to help retain to success.
- Establish a process to evaluate and act on the aggregated goals of students in relation to to program goals. This kind of information is helpful to program leaders and managers.
The above process changes are relatively simple, inexpensive, and constructive in the larger sense. They will assist your staff in building the kinds of relationships that make it easy and even expected for students to reach out for help at their first sign of being at risk.