5 Keys to Boosting Student Retention

Southern Utah University, faced with retention problems even more severe than than the ones now pressuring many colleges, improved its retention rate by about 10% with a “first year experience” that increased financial and academic support, identified struggling students and overhauled orientation and the first-year seminar, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Institutions nationwide, facing a 61% overall retention rate and a 55% rate for black students, are threatened by tight budgets, shrinking enrollment income and the prospect of aid formula changes that might cut even more support if students leave, the Chronicle reported. Due to the climate, about 60% of public four-year colleges and half of private colleges have set new retention goals.

Universities are focusing their efforts in five key areas: improving freshman orientation and first-year seminars in new creative ways; building a sense of belonging on campus, particularly among minority students who are less likely to feel connected; redesigning first-year high-enrollment, lecture-heavy “weed out” courses to provide more support and different content delivery methods; providing supplemental instruction including study sessions run by higher-level students; and using new technology and staff structures to spot struggling or unhappy students earlier.

One vice president for academic advising at Kennesaw State University polled students who weren’t returning, and one third responded with concerns about registration restrictions for parking tickets, not enough courses they need and glitches about majors and prerequisites — problems that the university could often easily spot and fix with more personal interaction. Gallup research has found that colleges should have six “strengths-based touch points” for students built into their systems.

Georgia State University, faced with a diverse and less affluent student body and shrinking state support, nonetheless, raised its retention rate by 22% primarily by offering struggling students supports that include peer monitoring and identification of problem areas through data analysis. Other colleges have used approaches that touch all students, including more one-on-one contact with faculty members offering longer office hours, learning communities and recognition of any staff member who makes students feel welcomed.

Use of data is increasingly popular to improve retention, including at Temple University, which offers students a more sophisticated “roadmap” report card with their strengths and challenges, and the University of Nevada, where one campus regularly uses data to spot struggling students.

A University of Massachusetts study showed that high school counselors, who have case loads that can reach as high as 1,000 learners in the neediest high-poverty schools, often aren’t able to help students carefully select a college or prepare for the experience, which other research shows contributes to low-retention rates. The report suggested more collaboration between higher education and high school counselors.

Other research shows that more spending on student services improves the chances students with low SAT and ACT scores will stay in college, while spending on instruction is key for students with higher scores majoring in STEM programs. Experts also say having more part-time and adjunct professors leads to lower graduation rates.

Finally, retention is now seen as a critical reason for the lack of minority teachers. Research shows while recruitment campaigns have doubled minority enrollment in teacher preparation programs, students of color are 24% more likely to leave the programs than the many others who do. Colleges are also examining retention rates of engineering students, although a recent study shows levels for those students have generally risen.