This series of mini-briefings is based on generalizations arising from the study of elective drops non-residential (AKA: in adult-centered, non-traditional) programs of study in higher education. Among the central generalizations are: (a) elective drops are most accurately modeled as critical events that can progress in a matter of days from initiation to execution; (b) trying to improve retention with predictive modeling, a method growing in popularity largely due to sales initiatives, is unlikely to produce results above chance levels in a well-controlled experiment; importantly, predictive modeling's tagging of potential drops cannot predict specific drops within the actual event horizon; (c) the most effective way to improve retention is to develop a genuine relationship with students such that they feel comfortable to, and will, reach out for help early in a rapidly developing drop event.
Tips in this series describe something you can do to improve retention that does not require adopting a complete system with which to manage retention with precision. At the same time, each tip is congruent with the kind of precision managed system we know to be most effective.
Tip - Celebrate the Most Personal of Events
Like ours, the lives of students are filled with noteworthy events, large and small. Birthdays, family and job changes, and moving into a new home are among the more common events. You already have the information needed to recognize one of these events in your system: students' birthdays.
Recognizing a student's birthday is not likely to have a direct impact on retention. Done improperly, it will have no effect or even a negative effect. The causal path to improved retention is via the recognition's contribution to creating relationships with students that increase the probability they will reach out for help when they consider leaving school.
How Not to Recognize a Birthday
- Send a boilerplate email that speaks, if not shouts, "I have no idea who you are and I don't care enough to find out. I have this system thingamajig that sends emails without my having to spend time getting to know you."
- Send any communication that begins "Dear Thomas, III" to a person whose family and friends call, "Ricko" (you have this important information in your SIS, right?). Translation: No one home on this end.
- Send a system-level communication that you can get a 10% discount at the bookstore on your birthday, so long as you can produce a government ID. Translation: Happy birthday. Give us some money.
- Work a back-end deal with a company that makes you money when the student contacts them to get his "birthday discount." This applies to other relationship neutralizing back-end deals that make you money by asking the student to spend money. Translation: See above.
A Better Way
- Contract with a fulfillment house to deliver a small gift at the time of a birthday. Ideally, these gifts build pride in and commitment to the school. Mugs, sweaters, pens, coasters, etc. are examples. The gift might be larger each year as the student approaches graduation.
- A week before the gift is scheduled to arrive, give the student a heads up that the gift will be arriving. Reach out in a personal way and, at the same time, create a little suspense. Convey that the forthcoming gift is your personal invitation to stay connected.
- Close your greeting with your phone number, email, and an invitation for the student to contact you any time he or she needs a little help sorting out the path to success. Convey that you know how much sacrifice is involved in earning a degree and that you understand it is never easy.
- Exploit your technology to its fullest. All SIS/CRM platforms can queue pre-structured action items based on student birthdays.
- Consider communicating by text or telephone rather than email. Both are generally more personal modalities than email. If you use email, have your CRM deliver pre-formed templates that require personalization before sending.
Who should send this somewhat personal email? Ideally, it is the job of the student's full time retention counselor. If that role doesn't exist (yet), consider creating a role for academic advisors and/or faculty to make the contacts.
Can You Afford It?
One of your colleagues may opine that the budget has no room for this kind of generosity.
You are charging each student $20,000 or more per year, plus fees and the profits you make off of textbooks and supplies. How well accounted and efficient would your institution's delivery system need to be to determine that there was no internal margin with which to offset the cost of a mug that the bookstore sells for $20 at a cost of $2.42 in quantities of 500?
The better question is, Can you afford not to communicate with your students on a personal level? Can you afford to position your institution as the decision of least consequence when it comes to reducing an overly full personal workload? Can you afford to ignore opportunities to establish and maintain the rapport required to make students feel comfortable in reaching out for help at exactly the time they feel that they need it?
You can offset the cost of quite a few mugs or jackets with the revenue derived from retaining a single additional student.
More Tips On the Way
Of necessity, each mini-briefing omits detail, especially the empirical information on which we base our recommendations. Let me know if you would like to explore this or other tips in more detail.