Although you are at the very beginning of a new school year, we suspect many of you are already thinking about retention. Hopefully this checklist of best retention practices will provide some food for thought and discussion on your campus as you now work to keep those students you labored so hard to enroll.
- Implement EARLY warning systems – and by early we mean in the first two weeks of the term—that identify students not attending class; doing poorly on initial graded work; exhibiting behavioral problems in the dorms; not meeting their financial obligations. Remember the system needs to not only identify at risk students, but also include a follow-up plan to be implemented for each student identified. And, by all means, if you have already identified entering students who may be at risk based on test scores, high school GPA, or other factors in their admissions application – do something about it!! You don’t have to wait until they are actually experiencing difficulty to act. You should be requiring support services from the get-go.
- Offer programs or social activities to link students to faculty in their intended major. In most cases, freshmen are taking general education core courses in their first semester, not courses related to their major. Also, at many institutions, first-year advisors are not faculty in the major. So without planning special welcome activities, students could go through their entire first semester, or even their first year, with no contact with faculty or upperclassmen in their major.
- Communicate with parents. Just as it is important to include a parent communication track when recruiting students, it is helpful to keep parents in the loop about resources on campus for students. They can help encourage students to take advantage of those resources.
- Ensure that your services are easy to navigate. Minimize overlaps and gaps, particularly in academic support services, and make sure that such services are well advertised. Regarding administrative services, best practice today is to have a “virtual” one-stop-shop through online portals that provide a full array of self-service options. However, not all questions can be addressed through self-service so ensure that key administrative service offices like registrar, financial aid, student accounts, and academic advising are well integrated and cross trained.
- Provide ways for students to connect to other students. This can be especially challenging for institutions with large commuter populations. Using peer advisors in a freshman course that is required of all students (e.g., a freshman writing seminar or “University 101” course) is one option. In addition, encouraging or requiring group work in freshman level classes can also help commuters feel more connected.
- Use data to target efforts and evaluate programs. Often institutions invest resources to improve retention based on anecdote rather than data. For example, some institutions offer additional gift aid to students with high levels of borrowing based on the assumption that they would otherwise lose those students. However, our retention research often finds that the most effective form of financial aid for retention purposes is campus employment, and that creating more student jobs would be a better investment of institutional resources than offering more grant aid. Consequently, we would encourage you to examine retention rates by subpopulation – or even better use predictive modeling – to understand the student characteristics correlated to retention or attrition. Then your retention efforts can be focused more efficiently. Similarly, data can be used to identify courses with high failure rates so that supplemental instruction can be provided for those courses. One institution we know even uses data on retention by academic advisor to identify staff that may need additional training or supervision.
- Don’t forget about second-year students. Many institutions have extensive services and programs targeted at incoming students, but almost nothing for students entering their second year at the institution. Sophomores face different challenges than freshmen. They may be facing the need to change a major, having realized they will not be successful in their initial choice. Or they may be having difficulty choosing a major, having entered as undecided. Again, analyzing the factors that impact retention from first-to-second year can help ensure that your intervention efforts are well targeted.
- Assign responsibility for retention. Although retention needs to be a campus wide effort, someone needs to be in charge of championing those efforts, developing a plan, and ensuring that the plan is implemented. Merely setting a goal for improved retention won’t make it happen.
What retention initiatives have you implemented on your campus? Have they been successful? What would you do differently?
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About the author: Vice President Kathy Kurz's special area of expertise is in developing strategic financial aid and retention programs, designed to enhance enrollment and net tuition revenue results. A former Associate Vice President at the University of Rochester and Director of Financial Aid at Earlham College, she pays special attention to ensuring that the solutions recommended are practical, detailed, and implementable.
Kathy contributes regularly to University Business, authored a chapter entitled The Changing Role of Financial Aid and Enrollment Management in New Directions for Student Services, a Jossey-Bass publication, and speaks at national conferences and seminars such as NACUBO, Academic Impressions, and CIC.
Connect with Kathy on LinkedIn.