Published on 2014/08/07

Turning the Focus from Enrollment to Retention

AUDIO | Turning the Focus from Enrollment to Retention
A focus on retention is what’s needed in the modern higher education space.

The following interview is with Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. A former vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Finney is an expert on the rapidly-changing postsecondary space. She recently shared her thoughts on the importance of shifting focus towards retention and completion, and in this interview she expands on that notion, discusses the impact of a focus on retention on enrollments and lays out a few strategies that can help institutions move in this direction.

1. Why is it critical for institutions to move from focusing on driving enrollments to focusing on driving completion?

From an economic and a competitive standpoint, it’s very important. The US is really treading water in terms of young adults achieving either associate or baccalaureate degrees while other countries are moving way ahead of us. That’s caused us to look at how well we do in getting students to either their certificate or their degree. Enrollments are still important but making sure that students who do enroll have an educational pathway to a degree is very important for the economy as a whole.

2. Do you think turning the focus from enrollments to retention and success will have a negative impact on annual applications and enrollments?

I don’t think so. There has been some dampening of enrollment during the recession but that has more to do with issues related to college affordability than trying to get students to stay in. Students find it very comforting if they know that institutions really have a plan for them; if they understand that there is a clear pathway to a degree or certificate.

Students get frustrated when they aren’t provided this kind of guidance and where they are just roaming around the curriculum and trying to collect credit hours.

3. A recent study showed that 31 million Americans have some college credit but no credential. What can higher education institutions do to support degree completion for this massive population of adults?

There are a number of things higher ed institutions can do. One of the things that the report that you referred to laid out is of the 31 million, they broke it down into students who had two or more years toward their degree. Those are the students that institutions should go after first because they have some experience. These students show a lot of motivation and have high aspirations for postsecondary education.

Every institution could get those same demographics and know how many of their students are very close to a degree, how many left after one term and then reach out to those students and find out why they dropped out of postsecondary education. It could be for a number of reasons. It could be because they really didn’t have the right information and they got lost in the curriculum and they weren’t sure what to do. It could be for motivation as well. It could be because they didn’t feel completely prepared for postsecondary education. It could also be because of affordability reasons.

4. What are some strategies higher education institutions can put into place to maximize their students’ chances for degree completion once enrolled?

It depends a lot on the student. For those students that have completed two years [of a degree program], reaching out to them and really just making sure the pathway is clear [could be really valuable]. This entails making sure they receive financial support and that has to do both with what institutions do as well as state policy and public policy.

For those students who may be a little bit older, but may have just one term of postsecondary education, we have to think of a whole new way of providing education for these students. That may be part-time — and we need financial aid programs to support part-time students at the state level. It may be trying to have modular course models, shorter course times where people can finish and see progress. There are a lot of institutions that focus on adult students and we can learn from them in terms of how to accommodate those students and make sure they succeed.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the growing importance of completion and retention and the fading importance of simply driving enrollments and trying to bring students in through the door?

It’s about public policy. The report focused primarily on institutions and student movement, but didn’t really address the public policies in place that can encourage institutions to go after these students. One is to create incentive, to provide funding based on student progress to degree. That can be done in a number of different ways, and states are experimenting with that. Another, as I mentioned earlier, is to provide financial aid for part-time students and really create financial aid programs that match the needs and the realities of working age adults and to make sure accountability mechanisms are in place so that we can see the movement of these students through post-secondary education institutions. Furthermore, to reward the institutions that are actually going after these students and trying to accommodate them.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • It is critical for higher ed institutions to consider how to retain students, rather than focusing exclusively on enrollments.
  • A focus on retention will lead to further enrollments because students will like the idea of their completion being supported by the institution.
  • Institutions need to think of new ways to offer postsecondary programming to students who have dropped out in the past.

Readers Comments

Rosa Brisk 2014/08/07 at 3:11 pm

The shift to thinking about retention is an important one. Far too many adults in the United States have some college but no credential. In my opinion, what will improve retention is offering different types of credentials with various program lengths. That way, students who are thinking to stop out of a degree program early for whatever reason (e.g. financial) could still have the option of pursuing a different credential, such as a certificate, with the courses they’ve already completed. There could also be an easier process for them to re-enroll later for a more advanced credential.

Ian Mulder 2014/08/08 at 9:25 am

Sometimes the pathway to a degree is clear, but courses are only offered in certain terms or formats, making it difficult for students to complete the requisite hours. Currently, departments have a lot of say in which courses they offer and when, but there needs to be better direction from the top — or from some central unit — that identifies which courses are required for different degree programs and ensures they’re offered regularly in multiple formats and time slots. With better data analytics, an institution would be able to say, “We have 200 students enrolled in this program. A hundred have yet to take Course X, so we need to offer three iterations of it within the next year to help those students complete.”

    SWL 2014/08/11 at 4:41 pm

    Private universities/colleges tend to do exactly that. They are so dependent upon the alumni giving that offering courses so the students actually CAN graduate on time is a much higher priority than it is at public universities.

SWL 2014/08/11 at 4:39 pm

The arguments presented sound great. However, I notice that as the push for graduation increases, the quality of the education declines.

As we all know, we can get all our students graduated if we don’t require them to learn anything. Years ago we were more concerned about the quality of education than the number of students who “earned” a degree. The quality of the degree has declined as has the quality of a H.S. diploma.

Let’s go back to quality education. I have no problem with finding out why student left school and helping them to re-enter and complete the degree. The push to get more students through, however, has overwhelmed the desire to provide a quality education.

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