Retention as Goal Attainment

Retention to graduation is the single point at which the interests of higher education's stakeholders align.

Retention as a Growth Strategy

At some point in an equation that charts growth as a function of enrollment, retention, withdrawals, drops, and graduation, it becomes mathematically true that a college can grow faster and with disproportionately greater net revenue by assigning more resources to retaining students than to enrolling students.

In other words, retaining students can be more worthwhile than enrolling them.

While the crossover point at which retention becomes more valuable than enrollment can be determined, few institutions allocate resources correctly along the enrollment/retention continuum. Against mathematics and logic, colleges allocate substantially greater resources to enrollment even when it is not in their interest to do so.

In most cases, the best way to begin this inquiry is with a quick and inexpensive retention audit.

Costs of Excessive Focus on Enrollment

Excessive focus on enrollment causes or contributes to:

  • Loss of potential revenue and margin (it is less expensive to retain than to acquire).
  • Enrolling students who drop before reaching the institution's financial break-even point creating a situation in which the institution would have realized greater financial gains had it not enrolled these students. Irony.
  • Across-the-board qualitative failures, including harming students. Retention to graduation represents the only point at which the institution's many stakeholders optimize their goals.
  • Various forms of internal dissatisfaction and demotivation associated to not graduating students.
  • Even leading providers in adult-centered and professional higher education have ignored the need for balanced attention to enrollment and retention.

Benefits of Retaining

The benefits of improving retention and completion include:

  • Satisfaction. Graduating students is a university's core business.
  • Improved faculty, student, and staff morale.
  • Increased referrals (retained and pleased students refer prospective students).
  • Fewer negative referrals (unsuccessful students refer negatively at higher rates than successful students refer positively).
  • Disproportionate contributions to revenue (referrals convert at higher rate and at lower cost).
  • Disproportionate contributions to retention (referred students retain at higher rates).
  • Reduced operating costs (many factors).
  • Regulatory Protection. Retention is now a focus of the US Department of Education, institutional accreditors, and specialized programmatic accreditors.

Precision Managed Retention

InterEd has been developing and implementing retention management systems for 24 years. Since we were founded on the learning and measurement sciences, our work discards ineffective or inappropriate methods in favor of those that:

  • Demonstrate the greatest overall success in retaining students to graduation; not merely to the next term.
  • Bring the potential for a drop to the fore in a personal context as it is being contemplated.
  • Focus on the real business of retention (including the dynamics of dropping out) rather than attempting to predict above chance levels who might drop at some future time.

Our focus on these criteria led us to abandon our work on predictive modeling and event tracking more than a decade ago. The reasons for moving off of this approach include:

  • Predictive modeling is negatively oriented; it tags at-risk students likely to fail and ignores students not projected to fail (the karma argument).
  • Predictive modeling and event tracking lead to a high proportion of false positives and false negatives, which is to say that their discriminant validity is low. If software vendors have hard data on discriminant validity, they do not share it. Low discriminate validity translates into student and staff dissatisfaction, and institutional inefficiency.
  • In cases where predictive modeling identifies a student likely to drop, it does not identify when, by what triggers, or why.
  • In cases where predictive modeling identifies a student likely to drop, the institution is left with developing a course of action and timetable, each of which can succeed or fail in terms of its contribution to preventing the drop.
  • Predictive modeling and event tracking are insensitive to many of the true empirical drivers of dropping out.
  • Whether or not predictive modeling or event tracking predict a drop, they do not accommodate or contribute to the understanding of the actual drop process, triggers, timing, or sequence.

A Unique Approach

InterEd's approach to retention is different from all approaches that attempt to classify students at risk to drop.

Our approach begins with the premise that elective drops are best viewed as unpredictable (time unpredictable and, largely, event unpredictable) critical events.

We characterize elective drops as critical events because our research shows that the causes of an elective drop (e.g., self doubt, feeling overwhelmed, new work responsibilities, etc.) progress quickly from a quiescent background concern to an irreversible drop. This progression can advance over the course of a few days, long before a persistence tracking system can detect, report, and respond to it.

It is not unusual for a student to experience break-through self-doubt following a class on Monday (Event 1), talking with his spouse or employer on Tuesday (Event 2), and executing an irreversible drop on Wednesday (Event 3). Predictive modeling may or may not have tagged this student and persistence tracking may or may not have received and reported signals up the chain.

Viewing drops as time-unpredictable critical events shifts the responsibility for identification from an algorithm that aggregates historical student behavior to the student who is actually contemplating the drop. It is this shift that our approach has refined to a point of efficiency and pedagogical soundness.

Relationships with Students

The best and perhaps the only method to intervene with students who are contemplating withdrawing or is to have established a relationship with that student. In this context, relationship means that – if and at the exact time persistence is being questioned – the student is naturally and comfortably inclined (perhaps even feeling a duty) to contact Linda, my retention manager thereby inserting a new Event into the typical three Event chain.

While InterEd's Precision Managed Retention System is driven by a family of sophisticated metrics, including persistence metrics where they become a factor in relationship management, it is driven by a single meta-metric: Does the student know the name and contact information of her Retention Counselor and is the student's historical relationship with that counselor such that she will reach out to the Counselor in time of need? We treat the meta-metric seriously. It is gathered and managed according to precision standards.

A Look Inside the Model

InterEd's Precision Managed Retention System consists of the following (always adapted to each institution's mission and culture):

  • Fully defined roles, the central role being the Retention Counselor (the actual title will usually be different).
  • Business rules, performance guidance, performance metrics and benchmarks, and evaluation criteria for each role.
  • Decision support, primarily in the form of metrics, reports, executive dashboards (for president, enrollment executive, others), and CRM functions to be provided by the institution's student information system.
  • As much training as needed to ensure success in roles, reporting systems, and results.
  • Coaching Retention Counselors with the knowledge and resources they need to mentor and coach students through the common behavioral transitions students go through when stepping outside of their traditional “comfort zone” as well as skill development such as time management, goal setting and affirmation processes, etc.

Retention Counselor Role

The system depends on the central relationship manager role played by the Retention Counselor. This is an active outbound role in which the majority of each day is spent in email, text, or telephone communications with students. The role does not wait for an inbound signal or a call from a student in distress.

The role is focused on building and advancing quality interpersonal relationships such that the student naturally thinks of contacting "his" counselor friend (perhaps feels obligated by friendship) when they begin to feel at risk. Because of this relationship, students feel closer to the institution and are more likely to refer other students.

Outbound communications are structured and triggered by calendar items (e.g., birthday action to fulfillment house and contact in student's preferred mode of communication), anticipated risk events (e.g., reaching out with guidance because course designated by the student as worrisome begins next week), anticipated relationship events (e.g., following up to congratulate success in the research course), and critical events (e.g., assignment missed or at-risk contact from student).

Success Lies in the Details

A richly detailed and proven approach keeps Retention Counselors on the right side of the line between a strong working relationship and annoyance. Fail here and the system performs about as well as a persistence tracking system. Not bad, but you can do so much better. A poorly defined, executed, or managed Retention Counselor role will not receive the at-risk distress call and will irritate many students, causing them to tune out the source. Our emphasis on performance metrics, performance standards, coaching, and training make the difference.

Counselor Ratios

InterEd's Precision Managed Retention System produces Retention Counselor ratios that begin at 250:1 and advance quickly to 500:1 with training and configuration of the university's CRM system. A ratio of 750:1 is theoretically possible (although not yet achieved) with an optimized CRM. Back of the napkin math will show that the cost of improving the CRM system is quickly offset by improved ratios, even if effectiveness is held constant.

What is Your Return On Investment Ratio?

InterEd's Precision Managed Retention System produces high returns on investment. With a few inputs from you, we can estimate your ROI in a matter of minutes. Of course, the non-financial benefits are also high and are associated with the harmony of achieving the primary goal of the institution and all of its associated stakeholders.

Helpful Options

If you want to learn more about what we do:

Use the Schedule a Time to Talk button in the upper right corner of this page. We will get back to you to find a time to talk.

If you want to learn how your current retention program measures up and what you can do to improve it:

Begin with an audit of your retention function tailored to your specific goals.

If you would like to involve other members of your administration:

Contact us to schedule a teleconference with our president and executive team.

If you want to do your own work but want to learn how to go about it:

Ask about our popular Executive Retreat on Precision Retention Management. We offer these retreats rarely and enrollment is limited to 12. Let us know if you would like to be notified of the next schedule. We will teach you everything we know and provide plans and checklists to stay on track.