Can High Retention Rates Drive Enrollment?
1. What are some of the biggest misconceptions distance education administrators have when it comes to retaining students?
I’m not sure that we have misconceptions as much as we’re all feeling our way a little bit. When we’re serving a distance population, we don’t have the commitment that a physical relocation typically involves for a student. Instead, we’re dealing with young men and women — or sometimes mid-career men and women — who are balancing a lot of different things, perhaps a full-time job, maybe a family, a variety of other sorts of things.
We’re all feeling our way a little bit in terms of providing those students with the support they need to be successful in school. What I’ve found in supervising a program that involves live distance classes is that live seems to help with retention in many different ways. First, it gives those students a support network: their teachers and their classmates who they now see over the live technologies that we use. Second, it creates appointment times for the submission of work, due dates, sharing projects that helps education rise to the top on a very long list of obligations these students have each week.
I’m proud to say that in the program that runs with live classes, our retention’s been outstanding; we’ve lost almost no students over the last two years.
2. What kinds of strategies should distance education administrators put into place to increase retention?
We have to be proactive. It may be sufficient in an on-campus environment to wait until students encounter problems … that puts a student on our radar. In a distance environment, we have to reach out. We have to be sure that we’re touching base with our students, letting them know we care about what’s happening to them, informing them about how much time online classes will take so they have a better sense of how to budget their time and balance their commitments. …
These are new conversations for us. We generally don’t find ourselves in these roles, but it’s really important that we help students face this challenge and that we learn from best practice and some of the mistakes we’re making.
3. Do you think the retention strategies you’re testing out on the distance education side could be valuable for traditional administrators?
I do, because what distance is allowing us to do is to reach a group of non-traditional students that — at least in an institution like the one that I work at, the University of Florida — [higher education] has traditionally not served. We’re a preeminent public institution located in a small city in the state of Florida, and the many outstanding students who are in the big urban population centers … more than likely would not be our students, except for distance.
As we begin to see what’s needed to be successful with our distance students, I think we are learning a great deal more about supporting non-traditional students when they’re doing face-to-face classes. And as I mentioned, because one of our distance programs is live, it really is that perfect hybrid of almost face-to-face but distance as well. It’s really giving us a wealth of data about these folks and their lives and the challenges they’re facing.
4. How does improved retention play into future enrollments?
Well, I see retention, future enrollment and, in fact, almost all of the outcomes we believe are important are centrally related to the student experience in our programs.
When students can see the transformations taking place in their life — in terms of a new skill set, in terms of new knowledge, in terms of all of the things we’re trying to do — they get excited about their classes, they look forward to their classes. They come to see their classroom experience not as an obligation but as something that’s really an important part of their lives. That kind of student experience leads to word of mouth, leads to positive outcomes after graduation; in other words, it’s a cascading set of outcomes that are happening because what you’re focused on all the time is making sure you’re delivering an engaging and quality product to the student.
So, I think programs that fail to retain students are, frankly, failing to engage them, or perhaps they’re failing to help them understand how their lives are being transformed. We work very hard to make sure we provide the very best educational product to students because, right now, if you’re familiar with this whole marketing life cycle, we’re definitely in the growth period for distance education; there’s a lot of programs popping up and a lot of people who are trying to do this. Shortly, I think there’ll be a real turn to quality. There’ll be people asking the question, “What makes one program better than another?” … We want the preeminent student experience because we think in the end that’s what’s going to build a very strong brand for our educational products long into the future.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of retention and the value in creating new retention strategies to meet the needs of the emerging learners in the present era of higher education?
Retention is a signal about how successfully you’re accomplishing your educational goals and how engaged your students are with educational products that you’re offering.
Programs that fail to pay attention to retention are like brands that don’t care if people come back to purchase the product the next time. Apple is not successful because they produced one great product; Apple is successful because consumers know that any Apple product they buy is going to be the very best piece of technology available.
I think educational programs need to pay very careful attention to retention because it’s a signal about how well they’re doing and how engaged their students are. If you’re retaining students and you’re engaging them, you don’t really have a marketing problem at that point; you have taken care of the promise you’ve made to these students for what they’re coming to you for.
I believe retention is a crucial metric that, as an administrator, I pay very careful attention to, and I certainly hope my colleagues do the same.
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- The best marketing strategy is one of retention: serve students’ needs and exceed their expectations to make them a lifelong learner and to encourage them to tell their contacts about the institution.
- Retention strategies being practiced by distance education units can also be applied to traditional programs.
Author Perspective: Administrator