Student confidence in higher education is shrinking. The pandemic had an immense impact on everything that encompasses the college experience. Levels of dissatisfaction rose while enrollments dropped due to unexpected changes inside and outside of the learning environment. Unfortunately, many of these issues still linger, so knowing how to boost student retention and persistence is increasingly essential.
Key Trends in Retention and Persistence
Nationwide college enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, with declines persisting even after returns to in-person classes. Students who left college without completing rose 3.6% between 2020 and 2021, and the number who returned to college fell 8.4%. Even as colleges and universities return to their pre-pandemic normal activities, students appear to have different opinions about the value of participating in higher education. While much of the focus on reversing this trend has been on improving enrollment numbers, student retention strategies are equally (or perhaps more) important. Strategies that boost student retention and persistence are vital to creating a positive student experience and helping young adults achieve their career goals.
It’s highly unlikely that students enroll in college and begin attendance with thoughts of dropping out. But millions are at risk of leaving school without earning a degree. Persistence describes the percentage of students who return to college at any institution, while retention reflects the percentage of students who return to the same institution. Numbers are down in both categories, making the need to boost student retention and persistence top of mind for higher ed institutions.
The reasons for students dropping out vary. Financial and academic concerns are among the top reasons, but the broader and more vague category of “personal reasons” is also a vital concern. College can be overwhelming for many students, and a good fit is essential to build the sense of belonging that makes students want to stay or return for their next year.
So how can higher education institutions boost student retention and persistence? It will take an approach that looks into addressing the many reasons students choose to leave. Technology and innovative ideas will likely lead the way in convincing the digital generation to remain in school. These student retention strategies show promise for increasing student retention in colleges and universities.
1. Hold Intervention Exercises
All students entering college are juggling a multitude of emotions. Many are living away from home for the first time, and they’re often in an unfamiliar location. Academic loads will inevitably be harder, and fitting in is always a concern. But colleges and universities generally don’t focus on anxieties and concerns until they become an issue. Some institutions believe this is too late.
A report from Indiana University reveals that intervention exercises for incoming students promote student persistence, course-taking, a sense of belonging, and first-year completion. This was derived from a study including an exercise that took place online before move-in day and had three steps. Students first examined survey data from older students at their school that described their worries upon entering college. They then engaged with the testimonials before reflecting on what they learned and their feelings about starting college. These reflections and concerns were written in a letter addressed to future students.
The exercise worked to normalize the feelings of anxiety experienced by all students. It also shared the power of overcoming them. Such exercises combined with interactive onboarding before students even begin their higher education journey have the potential to help students arrive on campus with a sense of belonging. This type of proactive interaction can serve to boost student retention and persistence through early positive reinforcement.
2. Improve and Maintain Engagement
Sixty-nine percent of current and prospective graduate and undergraduate students surveyed believe you can be successful without a college education. Students stay in college because they choose to be there. For colleges and universities hoping to retain students, engagement in learning programs and other campus activities will be more vital than ever. Incoming and active students need to build and cultivate relations with peers, staff, student leaders, and advisors to maintain high engagement levels on campus.
Orientation, move-in day, onboarding, welcome week, and campus life, in general, are filled with activities in a sprawling environment that isn’t always easy to navigate. The right digital tools can help students recognize surroundings they haven’t even visited before.
Interactive campus maps allow students to familiarize themselves with the landscape and relevant buildings. With features like turn-by-turn wayfinding and live updates, students can easily learn how to get to physical spots before events occur. Students are more likely to attend events and become involved in interactive events when presented with an easier process.
3. Reframe Academic Expectations
Understandably, academic concerns are among the top stressors for students. Colleges and universities present challenging coursework and high expectations. On top of this workload, first-year students are learning how to take care of adult responsibilities like budgeting, balancing work and school requirements, and maintaining social engagements. When students become overwhelmed and grades drop, anxiety and depression can quickly follow.
Organizations can set students up for success by clearly defining academic expectations and sharing information about available programs and resources to stay on track. When schools use various factors to measure learning, students are less likely to get overly stressed about getting an A. Some educators believe that the stress surrounding traditional grading is affecting students’ mental health and that it fails to accurately represent what they have learned. This is leading to growing support for the idea of “ungrading” or developing an alternative grading system.
Alternative grading might be a long way off for most traditional colleges and universities. But there are other ways to help students stay centered and meet their academic goals. Programs that provide mentorship, tutoring, and resources for learning can boost student retention and persistence to follow a strong learning path.
4. Build an Active Calendar
College life isn’t (and shouldn’t be) all about learning. Boredom and loneliness can lead to disengagement. This puts students on a path to stop attending classes or even drop out. For many schools, engaging students in campus life beyond academics is a powerful way to boost student retention and persistence. Most colleges have no shortage of activities and opportunities. But they may not be immediately apparent or feel accessible to students. Try providing a single source of information about campus activities. You can give students a way to find engaging activities from orientation through graduation.
By centralizing all campus events into an easy-to-use digital calendar, you can make it easier for students to know what is happening and how they can participate. You can take easy involvement a step further by integrating calendar events with social media. Also, use links or QR codes to incentivize engagement.
5. Connect Students With Financial Resources
According to a survey conducted by The Princeton Review, including 12,225 college applicants and their parents, 82% of students say financial aid will be extremely or very necessary for paying for college. However, finding and applying for financial assistance programs isn’t easy when you don’t know where to look. In fact, when asked what the toughest part of the admission process is, “completing applications for admission and financial aid” was the number two answer at 32%. It sits only one percentage point behind taking the SAT.
Higher education costs have been on the rise for decades. It can deter students from enrolling in and staying in college. First-year students often need assistance applying for financial aid during enrollment. Yet, it’s not the only time financial concerns arise. As financial needs change, students need to stay informed about scholarships, grants, and job opportunities.
By providing self-service resources, institutions can reduce administrative burdens while providing students with the information they need to succeed. Organizations can post centralized job boards on campus to help students find ways to earn money. Financial aid offices can implement technology to allow students to easily access their account information to manage loans, avoid over-borrowing and meet scholarship requirements.
6. Adopt Flexible Scheduling
Higher education isn’t reserved for students who have just finished high school. Adults are increasingly embracing the notion that you’re never too old to go to college. About 73% of students enrolled in higher education fit into some definition of non-traditional students. These individuals might have a full-time job, a family, and a variety of other obligations. By offering flexible schedules that include weekend and evening classes, you can remove barriers that could lead to absences or students feeling forced to leave school altogether.
Virtual opportunities can also assist with scheduling conflicts and provide additional opportunities for all students. Online classes are always an option. However, campus life interactions can also be encouraged virtually. By creating opportunities and groups for non-traditional students, you can help students from all walks of life engage with academics and campus life.
Using Technology to Improve Retention
There are various reasons that students disengage, fall behind, or become at risk of leaving college. But new technologies are emerging every day that can help colleges boost student retention and persistence. Many of the issues that trigger students to abandon their study plans already have solutions in place. When you implement modern technology to assist student retention strategies, you can help students stay on track.
Concept3D provides technology solutions to reduce communication and wayfinding burdens that can add stress to the first-year college experience. By introducing resources students can easily access from their mobile devices, you can keep them informed and engaged throughout their college journey. Learn more about how our solutions can be used to boost student retention and persistence.