Measure for Success: Maximizing Retention Across the Student Lifecycle
The academic and financial success of every certificate or degree program depends on student persistence and completion of the enrolled course of study. Students who do not complete their courses and programs cannot achieve the expected learning outcomes and earn the credentials and degrees that are so valuable for their career advancement and progression.
The creation of an effective retention engine requires several elements that must be adapted for specific institutional and programmatic environments. The core of any retention effort requires a commitment to establishing metrics and systems to track them. The aphorism “you can’t improve what you don’t measure” is especially true for student retention efforts. Though the specifics of what your institution decides to measure will reflect your environment, I suggest a focus on tracking and measuring each of the critical moments when students are most likely to stop, drop or sit out during their studies.
These critical moments should be set to anticipate an associated drop risk. For example, it is typical for schools to track student acceptance into programs, but what is the drop risk we anticipate and prevent with this measure? The next step for a student after acceptance is registration, so the acceptance measure should be constructed and managed in a way that provides insight and an opportunity to prevent drops prior to registration. Similarly, tracking registrations should be done in a way that provides insight and an opportunity to prevent drops prior to course start. Tracking course starts can be done in a way that provides insight into drops prior to course completion. The cycle continues through term completion, re-registration, and eventually to graduation.
Key to the design of effective retention tracking is to identify and understand the reasons students do not persist and complete and to then begin to anticipate those issues and challenges. As an institution learns more about student persistence within its programs it can gain insights into the multitude of factors that influence and encourage student retention. These factors include program design, recruitment advising, academic and administrative support, faculty interactions, and organizational initiatives that impact student decisions about stopping or dropping out of a program.
To an academic administrator, student actions regarding program persistence and completion can appear baffling. After all, when students gain admission into a program so much has already gone into getting them there. For many programs—especially degree programs—applications, letters of recommendation, transcripts, interviews, essays, application fees and any number of other prerequisite items may have been submitted before receiving a positive admission decision. For most students this is a non-trivial effort.
If all this effort has gone into entering a program, why do so many students fail to launch? And for those who get started, what happens to stall their progress and cause them to stop or drop out of the program? For students who have already completed a portion of the coursework, why do they lose their momentum and choose not to continue?
Improving student retention for academic programs requires program administrators to discover the issues that students perceive as challenges to their progress, assess and track those challenges, and then engage in a preventative process to mitigate them. Improving student persistence requires an iterative approach. Administrators may not have the ability to remove all the students’ perceived barriers to program completion. Some barriers may involve academic and institutional standards, and require long and multi-stage efforts to resolve. So what can program administrators do to make a positive impact now, even as they plan for even better retention with future structural and procedural changes that require more time to develop?
After establishing the systems and mechanisms for retention tracking and identifying risk factors and critical risk moments, the retention engine requires a commitment to an iterative, continuous improvement for the three elements within the institution’s grasp:
1) Discover the challenges perceived by students as barriers to persistence
2) Assess and track those challenges
3) Engage in a preventative process to anticipate and neutralize the challenges
Retention activities should begin as soon as the program team has received an admission or acceptance decision. Program administrators should begin contacting, interviewing, and discovering whatever they can in order to support and keep their students engaged and performing within the program.
In addition to discovering the risk points for student drops within a program and the risk factors for student drops that each student may bring with them to the program, program administrators must work to reduce or eliminate the risk factors, and reinforce and strengthen the protective factors. Protective factors are strategies and supports fully within the purview of the university to systematically eliminate identified obstacles and create relationship elements that encourage continued enrollment and completion.
Program administrators should also target students who have stopped out and who need to be recovered into their programs of study. When students stop out or drop out from a program, they should not disappear. Given what has been learned through the relationship building, additional contact and the offers of support may bring them back to the program when their stress factors shift and they are motivated to return to study.
Author Perspective: Administrator