Published on 2012/05/02

Retention Also Starts Before The Door

Creating a strong reputation of for adult student services and quality education will allow higher education administrators to begin their retention efforts before students even arrive. Photo by Steve Cadman.

We have all heard of the $1,000,000 question, right? Well, the question of retention and how to achieve the “magic” percentage or number seems to be the $1,000,000 question for Higher Education Institutions today.

I have been employed at three separate higher learning organizations as well as having attended two universities, and the fear of not attaining the prescribed retention number is so pervasive one can almost detect the offensive sent of attrition wafting down the halls. Admissions representatives look haggard, tired, burnt out. It is very obvious they are quaking in their boots over unrealistic enrollment numbers they are expected to achieve. Administrative staff and faculty look the same – why is this? The possibility of not hitting the number of enrollments and then the possibility of going over the allotted withdrawals per semester or quarter causes a lot of fear and trepidation. So how do we address the “elephant in the room” – the $1,000,000 question? How can we resolve this conundrum and positively affect retention?

Increasing Retention At The Door” was the first article I wrote for The EvoLLLution, but I have since researched the subject further and while indeed retention is dependent on what we do after the student walks through the door, I am convinced it ALSO starts BEFORE the student walks in the door. However, how does an organization retain a student they don’t already have? It is my understanding that reputation is the key to answering this question. For example, the reputation of many Ivy-league and long standing traditional colleges are that of being able to turn applicants away in droves and that they do not have a problem with reaching their retention goals. What is it they do differently from all the other universities and colleges? I could make a list of grounds but honestly, I believe that the reason they are so successful at maintaining high retention numbers has to do with the fact they worry about retention before the student ever walks in the door…

  1. They have built a reputation of producing excellent graduates and successful professionals. This reputation is predicated on being very selective in their choice of students. While growth in numbers might be a goal; that growth is not sacrificed by accepting students who do not reach the standards they set.
  2.  2. They also have a reputation for extraordinary instructors and professors: With this is the reputation for producing extraordinary curriculum as well.
  3.  They have excellent reputations nationally and internationally for their philanthropy.

But these are the proven characteristics of the established schools – can these characteristics be achieved by new, adult, accelerated program career-focused HEI’s?  Most of these schools are relaxing their requirements for the students, educators and staff they accept and employ. How can a these HEI’s build an equally good reputation in the community and with employers that will positively affect retention before the student even walks through their door?

It is my belief that being more selective in the choice of student should be a component of the answer but it’s not the complete answer. There are so many adults entering the education arena because the economy has forced them to realize they will probably not get a job, get promoted or make the money they once did if they don’t earn a degree. Someone has to answer the market call for these adults and that is exactly what career-oriented, adult-learning and accelerated program HEI’s are doing. Perhaps one of the counterbalances of this economic demand is to concentrate on a comprehensive Student Services department. This should be a component of the solution to the $1,000,000 question for the following reasons:

While it is true that many student services advisors offer information that will help the student pay his/her living expenses or an occasional money card; providing these occasional services are nice but they aren’t going to resolve the persistent life issues these students have faced and will continue to face even after graduating and acquiring a job/career.

Quite a large number of these adult learners are disenfranchised; they’ve never had guidance and support to help them learn how to resolve issues or deal with hardships, or set goals and stick to a program until they reach those goals. Thus the reason it is so difficult to retain students who fit this demographic. Allowing Student Services to offer budgeting courses as well as counseling on how to resolve the pervasive issues they face on their own would set these HEI’s apart. Instruction on how to look and act professionally is another aspect of the services Student Services should be able to provide. This could cover not only the “how” a person should dress and act but “why” they should dress and act this way. I have witnessed adult students asking why they are not allowed to show their tattoos, or wear their many earrings, nose rings, etc… only to be treated like the errant child of a tired mom who answers them with a “because”. Giving them a “because” answer is quite honestly giving them the shove out the door. They need these services and they need to know why they need them.

Procuring well-educated, excellent instructors or professors is a good answer to this pervasive question as well, but it is predicated upon what is meant by excellent. As stated above, professors at established and Ivy-league schools are well educated. However, most do not have practical or field experience. . I believe that many of the instructors at accelerated program HEI’s have the practical, in-field experience they need as a component to be an instructor, but often they do not have the in-class instructional experience. I would propose that hiring instructors and professors who have both the practical experience as well as instructive experience is a better choice for the HEI’s that cater to the adult learners and provide an accelerated program.

Professors and instructors at traditional schools also usually write the curriculum they teach. I established that they do write excellent curriculum but I do not believe the fact that most accelerated, career-focused higher education institutions employ someone in administration to write their curriculum is an issue. Generally those in administration who are employed to write the curriculum have been instructors for many years as well as having worked in the field of their degrees. This means that not only do they have the insight of an instructor they also have the practical knowledge of what employers expect of an employee.

Many colleges and universities also offer career training, advice and counseling to their students, which proves invaluable. These services are usually offered through a Career Services Department. Career Services departments should not only help the graduate gain employment through cultivating relationships with employers but they should proffer a wide-ranging program that covers all the bases of becoming a professional; articulation, demeanor, presentation, resume writing, skill attainment through hands-on training, externships, internships, etc…

This too would set the HEI’s apart. As a matter of fact, too many well-established schools only offer the didactic component of a degree. They do not offer the hands-on learning, skill building courses that are becoming integral to the graduate when seeking jobs in today’s market. This supports the statement above about administrative curriculum writers because the employers of today not only want an employee who has the “head” knowledge of their chosen profession, they want employees who have already gained most of the skills for which they are looking. They want the graduate to have a practical understanding of the career as much as they expect them to have an intellectual knowledge. These HEI’s are doing just that and as well as the established universities are sending to the work field extraordinary employees.

Career Services departments are also charged with building the reputation of the institution by cultivating relationships with employers and organizations in the communities in which they serve. They encourage volunteerism not only as a way to get experience but as a way to show those in the community that this school cares about the community and its citizens. Most of these schools cannot be as philanthropic as the established schools but they do as much as they can to show their appreciation for being accepted into the community.

Experience has taught me that everything is a cycle; reputation especially. If we build a reputation that we offer a very well-rounded, complete and extraordinary education that reputation will lead to a greater number of applicants which would lead to the ability to be more selective in the students we admit to our programs. As we also build a reputation for extraordinary graduates that are excellent employees, employers will build our reputation by continuing to hire our graduates and speaking to the skills and knowledge they gained via our schools. This again would lead to more applicants and the ability to be more selective. It would also lead to attracting more highly educated and career-experienced instructors and staff, which in turn should produce better graduates – better employees: All of it a cycle. Bottom line and main point of this article… the reputation for producing these results will lead to better retention of students. It will lead to retaining students before they walk in the door because they will want to go to “that school” – they will want to be a graduate from that school because they will know they have a “leg” up when it comes to procuring the career they have always dreamed of. The confidence a student would have that the education they will receive through that school will lead to those students enrolling and persisting to graduation with that institution – thus, raising retention even before they walk through the door.

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Readers Comments

Reg White 2012/05/02 at 4:35 pm

Having more students than the market can support inevitably leads to more institutions.

I actually like that there are some really good, some mediocre, and some not-so-good institutions. There really is a place for anyone at any level of learning to collect their credentials!

…Not sure if that’s a great thing, but it will certainly move us closer to Obama’s goal!

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