Three Steps to Improving Student Persistence through High-Touch StrategiesLaura Bristow | Former Center Dean of the Keller School of Business, DeVry University
1. Identifying Causes (Not Symptoms) of Student Drops
Typically, a list of reasons for student drops is comprised of variations on the themes of financial, academic and personal issues. The reasons may well be exactly as stated, but often they’re simply symptoms of larger issues the institution has some control over.
It could be that the financial issue — for example, meeting the aggregate loan limit prior to graduation — is a function of multiple school attempts or repeated classes. The academic issue might actually be indication of student disengagement rather than lack of ability. The personal issue (work schedule, family concern, health challenge) may be only a temporary impediment, but a reason given because the student prefers not to voice a need for encouragement.
Acting on the true causes of drops will change the conversation we have with students in the areas of student service, instructional delivery, customer service and financial aid packaging — all of which impact persistence.
2. Digging into Data
Knowing the drivers behind traditional retention equations can also introduce new conversation and initiatives. For example, discovering at which point in their program most students drop, or identifying the courses that are the “killer courses” students fail most often (and their respective teachers). Another thing to look out for is the drop rate for students who register relatively early in the enrollment cycle compared to those who register later.
Once institutional leaders commit to fully understanding the behavior around drops in the context of academic and enrollment operations, it will become easier for the institution to adjust their operations to benefit students. These adjustments include weekly (if not daily) staffing decisions, tutoring schedules, business process, student contact strategies and accountabilities.
3. Creating a System-Wide Persistence Culture
Persistence is everyone’s business and should be top of mind from the first enrollment meeting — when student obstacles are initially discussed and addressed — until graduation.
Integrating academics, enrollment, student support services and business processes is the most challenging step of all because it requires strong leadership that breaks down communication or personality silos and focuses all teams on seamless customer service. Colleagues throughout the organization must be invested in the student journey, and together foster a culture that seeks comprehensive, cross-departmental solutions to student challenges.
Author Perspective: Administrator, Business Schools
I want to comment on the need for a system-wide effort to address student dropouts. I believe better inter-departmental collaboration can help to identify students who are struggling early on. There are usually warning signs, like a missed tuition payment (that would be caught by financial services) or reduced attendance (that would be noticed by an instructor). Training staff to be aware can help ensure the institution can intervene before students make the drastic decision to leave.
The use of the term “high touch” might scare some institutions that don’t think they have the resources to successfully implement such strategies. To those, I offer a case study from my own institution, a small, public college in Indiana.
We created an “early warning” process and trained existing staff in different departments (financial office, academic advising, student services, counselling) to recognize when a student was at risk and to flag it in our student database. We created a triage system to identify which department could best handle a case so there would be a streamlined approach that best made use of our limited resources. This process has proven to be effective and hasn’t “cost” us anything beyond initial training. We made use of our existing database platform to host the early warnings as well.
Just some thoughts to help institutions interested in implementing Bristow’s suggestions.