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Increasing Retention At The Door

Retention efforts should start before a student even speaks with an admissions officer if we want to switch the focus from reactivity to proactivity. Photo by Dushan Hanuska.

I think the best way to raise retention is not to focus on retention. I know, doesn’t seem to make sense. Let me explain: for years the focus was on attrition and how to combat it. Then one day someone thought about the opposite issue: “Retention” and then the focus changed to understanding how to retain students once they are in the door versus wondering how to resolve attrition. Though retention is the positive opposite of attrition it is still reactive versus proactive because we still plan for it after the fact – after the student has enrolled.

While I understand that in these difficult economic times and with all the new competition from colleges and universities that are opening it is hard to think of saying “no” to a potential student, we need to.

There are many Ivy League and well established schools that do not admit every applicant and yet they are still successful, still in business, still accredited. BUT – with the heavier competition, ROI’s have been lowered and CEO’s, COO’s and directors of organizations are usually forced to focus on the bottom line to the point that the “passion to say no” is a very daunting stand to take. However, we need to “bite the bullet”, “bleed some blood” and stop seeing the student as a number and once again start looking at them as a bright-eyed, hopeful human beings with goals, aspirations and natural talents are that may or may not be a fit to a degree that particular HEI to which he/she applied offers. If we focus on the “fit” for the potential student, retention will take care of itself.

This brings me to point one: That we all too often do not fit the student to the degree or the degree to the student. For example: One morning at a former school in which I was employed, I overheard an instructor saying that one of her nursing students stated she was only pursuing an RN degree for the money – she hates people, hates dealing with germs, and hates dealing with those who need help, (you get the picture). Now I ask – is this the kind of person who should be a nurse or would you want her to be your nurse? My answer is an emphatic “NO”! One of two things will happen with this student. She will either stay in school motivated only by the opportunity to make a lot of money as a nurse and then fail when she gets out in the “real” world (we cannot hide our true selves for long), or she will burn out after experiencing one too many clinical days in which she will have to “deal with a person in need”. What happened here? Shouldn’t at least some of her attitude toward the medical field have been revealed in the Admissions process? Did the Admissions representative drop the ball? Should she have had to meet with an advisor before being admitted and enrolled?

I was ready to go to school when I did. If I had gone straight out of high school I would have failed. I had extremely low self-esteem and very bad study habits as well as not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up other than a singer. I was convinced I could be a singer without a college degree. Once I realized I wanted a degree and a career outside of entertainment, I didn’t care that I was scared or that I might fail or realize I wasn’t as smart as I hoped I was. I talked to my Admissions Rep for a very long time – I delineated my talents, my skills, my work experience and my goals and I know that my choice to earn a Bachelor’s in Marketing and then a Master’s in Management was absolutely right for me.

This brings me to point two: We enroll students who are not ready for school either emotionally or financially. For example: We know high risk students drop mainly because of financial reasons and while we might be able to help address or resolve some of them, we can’t pay them to remain in school and we can’t provide them all their physical or monetary needs. The best way to try and retain a student whose circumstance has left them in financial hardship is to build a relationship with that person and help resolve their issues before the student enrolls. Perhaps the course many colleges offer as a first or second semester course focusing on life-skills should be something we offer to the potential student. Many applicants are just looking for relief to their sad circumstance and try to earn a degree in the field that “all the experts” are saying is the career of the future. I know it is a risky idea – may not pay off in many ways, but what if it did? What if waiting to fully enroll the applicant in school until they had their personal life on the right track worked? What if we required every potential student to take a six week application course that featured life and goal planning, talent and skill assessments, and life-issues resolution? We should be addressing the issues they already have not compounding the issues by adding another financial obligation in the laps of someone who is already over-extended.

Attrition and retention will always be issues we will never completely resolve but again, my suggestion would be to focus on the person going through the enrollment process and being as passionate about NOT placing the student in a degree program within a higher learning institute because he/she is not ready for whatever reason to go to school or not a fit, as we are to push them through the enrollment process and using them as a number for accreditation or a boost to the bottom line.

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