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Student Retention and Persistence Strategies in Higher Ed

Beyond recruiting and admitting students to academic programs, universities also have the subsequent challenges of student retention and persistence, which includes supporting those students and guiding them to the finish line of their academic pursuits. However, student retention and persistence challenges have always been something of a struggle for higher learning institutions.

What Are the Student Retention and Persistence Problems in Higher Education?

In 2020, the six-year completion rate for undergraduate students completing a four-year degree was roughly 64%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). In other words, approximately one-third of all students who set out to earn an undergraduate degree that would normally take four years to attain did not do so within six years’ time. To put it another way, roughly one in every three college students do not achieve their academic goals within a reasonable timeframe – a sobering statistic for any college administrator.

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Student persistence can feel personally satisfying! Image courtesy of Jason Dixson Photography.

So how can colleges and universities help students reach their academic objectives? Strategies for student retention and persistence vary from institution to institution and even between programs and departments at a single school. However, there are some common strategies that higher education institutions can use to assist their students.

Strategy #1: Helping Students Manage Their Work-Life Balance and Create a Realistic Workload

Some colleges and universities cater to mostly traditional students – those students entering college immediately out of high school. But other schools attract non-traditional students; these students are older adults with established careers, spouses, children and other responsibilities. Naturally, the average non-traditional student has a lot more going on in his or her life than just college coursework.

One common reason that students abandon their academic pursuits is burnout, according to Best Colleges. Burnout often occurs when students get overwhelmed with all their responsibilities and begin to feel that they cannot possibly fulfill all their life commitments (such as work, personal, and academic) simultaneously.

When college students reach their limit, then something must give. Understandably, family and livelihood tend to take priority over school. So for non-traditional students, college degree ambitions are usually some of the first things to be axed to free up bandwidth in their lives.

A big part of the strategy for maintaining student retention and persistence at colleges involves setting an expectation upfront for a healthy balance between academic work and other obligations. Most schools have teams of academic advisors and other support personnel who serve students by communicating via phone and email about program information and recommended course loads. They can also provide other important advice and tips to help college students be successful during their time at school.

Schools also employ credit caps, which place limits on the number of courses in which a student can enroll per semester. Credit caps are widely used throughout higher education, and although I’ve previously written critically about their effects, their well-intentioned purpose is to prevent students from becoming overwhelmed with the amount of work they take on.

The ultimate goal is to help students determine what kind of course load is reasonable within the context of their own unique circumstances. And by having this critical conversation about a realistic course load prior to taking classes, universities can help students completely avoid the eventuality of burnout and a difficult struggle to keep up their educational pursuits.

Strategy #2: Maintaining Student Engagement in the Learning Process

Another common concern from students – especially students who choose to pursue their degrees online – is a feeling of disconnection between students, faculty and the learning taking place, according to Education Technology Journal. It is easy for online students to feel as if they are an anonymous and unimportant part of the classroom experience.

Students can sometimes feel this way in asynchronous class settings where there are no live face-to-face video meetings or phone calls through which students and faculty can have direct, meaningful interactions. When students feel disconnected, they tend not to feel as if anything is lost when they simply “check out” of the learning process, so some students will stop attending their classes.

Consequently, many schools with online learning environments maintain policies of required engagement between faculty and students in the classroom to promote the kind of personal connection that is vital to keeping students interested and focused. Generally, instructors are expected to check into their classrooms several times each week. They will read students’ work, respond to student emails and participate meaningfully in weekly discussion forums to keep students invested in their education.

Reciprocally, students are also often expected to engage in these weekly discussions forums as well by posting substantive thoughts and a minimum number of responses to their peers to keep forum conversations moving. By promoting this kind of bilateral interaction, schools can keep students actively interested in learning and invested in their own progress.

Strategy #3: Catching Students Before They Abandon Their Studies

So far, all of the student retention and persistence strategies I’ve discussed have entailed proactive efforts to prevent students from “falling off the wagon” in the first place. But the fact is that these efforts all require a certain amount of buy-in from students.

For example, excellent academic advising teams are only beneficial if students read their emails, answer their phone calls and value their advice. Similarly, instructors can go to great lengths to engage their students in the online classroom, but this effort only matters if students log into their courses regularly and notice the effort an instructor makes to reach out to them.

Despite sincere efforts from university faculty and support staff, some students will still falter in their academic persistence. Occasionally, the reasons might be related to the circumstances of the school experience itself.

For example, there might be a personality conflict between a student and an instructor. A similar situation might be that students may find that they are not a good fit for a certain academic program or are no longer interested in the subject matter taught in the classes.

However, the World Economic Forum notes that the reasons for stumbling in academic pursuits are often not related to teachers at all. Instead, they are peripheral challenges that compete for the limited time that students have to dedicate to different demands each day.

For example, students might get married or divorced. They might have a baby, adopt a child, or a family member might get sick or pass away suddenly. Similarly, students might get new jobs, lose their old jobs, or start a new business or hobby.

Sometimes, colleges and universities have advance warning signs about these kinds of life situations. For example, a student might email their professor or advisor and explain that the hardships they’re experiencing are compromising their ability to turn in assignments on time.

This kind of advance notice is extremely valuable for assisting student retention and persistence, so most schools encourage their faculty and staff to be proactive about any issues their students have before those students drop out of classes. For example, to aid struggling students, instructors could offer good-faith extensions on coursework deadlines to accommodate students’ extenuating circumstances.

On the other hand, sometimes colleges and universities don’t receive any advance warning about a student experiencing life challenges. In those cases, the student might make it clear they have reached a breaking point through a number of different situations.

The most formal and direct action for the student would be to ask to unenroll from an academic program in question via a phone call or email. A less abrupt and permanent approach is to finish out whatever courses are being take at the time their obstacles arise and then just not register for any future courses.

The most drastic scenario often occurs when students’ lives change so suddenly that they have no opportunity to salvage anything or mitigate their losses. As a result, those students commonly abandon their studies mid-course and simply disappear, allowing their grades and academic standing to suffer the inevitable fallout of their unannounced withdrawal.

However, there are still steps that a university can take to bring students back from the brink of abandonment. If the school receives a formal unenrollment request from a student, it should trigger a conversation with academic advisors and other university staff. Academic advisors can discuss the reasons for the student’s decision and determine if there is anything the school can do to rectify the situation or improve conditions so a student could remain in school.

The same is true with respect to students who communicate their hardships to faculty or staff during their academic programs. These kinds of notifications should be treated as red flags and should be followed up promptly with the same kind of in-depth investigation to determine if the school can do anything to help the student.

As for students who simply disappear without a trace, these are by far the most difficult situations for college and universities to navigate due to the lack of useful notice or information. However, institutions can still make good-faith efforts to communicate with students (via phone, email, and any other means available) to find out where they went and whether anything can be done to help get them back on track.

Reaching Out to Students Plays a Large Role in Student Retention and Persistence

Realistically, colleges and universities cannot resolve every problem and save every student who is encountering obstacles in their academic journey. However, there are a number of steps that institutions can take to support students and maintain student retention and persistence.

Proactively, these efforts can detect and avoid problems before they emerge. Also, these efforts can help students recover from their problems and find their way back to the path toward academic success. Despite the uncertainty of success, schools still have a duty to do everything they can to help their students achieve their academic goals, so these practices are minimum standards for sound stewardship of a higher learning institution.

Gary Deel

Dr. Gary Deel is a faculty member with the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business. He holds an M.S. in Space Studies, an M.A. in Psychology, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership, an M.A. in Criminal Justice, a J.D. in Law, and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches classes in various subjects for the University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida, Colorado State University, and others.

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