The ultimate goal of any college or university is to graduate successful students. That means not just recruiting exceptional students to your institution but also ensuring they remain with you through the time they walk the stage at commencement. And that, in turn, means paying special attention to your retention. But retention ties to something that may or may not surprise you: your campus’s sense of community.

College student retention, of course, is the rate at which students who initially enrolled at your school remain students across semesters. There are different types of retention, like first-semester and first-year retention or upper-level student retention (sometimes referred to as persistence). But we’ll use it as a broad umbrella term for the purposes of this post.

That’s because one thing remains true, regardless of the cohort you’re analyzing. The key components of college student retention remain the same. Perhaps the most important component is building a sense of community among your students.

The Importance of Prioritizing College Student Retention

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 64% of students who enroll at a four-year institution actually complete their degree within six years. That leaves more than one-third of all students either without a degree or transferring out to seek opportunities elsewhere.

The takeaway is simple. From one perspective, institutions that don’t prioritize retention break their promise to provide those students with a quality education. From a different perspective, every student lost to a withdrawal or transfer represents lost revenue that could otherwise be invested in improving the educational experience and student life.

It’s why student retention has increasingly become a hot topic in higher education. In fact, higher ed leaders across the board are taking on new initiatives to address this topic. Efforts range from creating retention committees to having dedicated student success leaders. Repeatedly, these efforts lead to one conclusion:

To grow your retention, you need to establish and nurture a sense of community among all your students.

Building a Sense of Community: What the Research Says

As you would expect from an industry filled with academics, plenty of research studies have sought to examine the factors that most influence college student retention. Naturally, they find a complex environment. Factors like academic performance and professor engagement consistently surface.

In most studies, a sense of belonging—and, more specifically, a sense of community on campus—outpaced all other factors in both predicting and improving college retention rates.

  • A 2020 study by researchers at Bucknell University found that community experiences were a better predictor of student satisfaction and retention than academic achievement and participation.
  • A 2019 study by Penn State and Wake Forest University found that college students who felt they belonged to the college community showed better academic performance, mental health, and higher retention rates.
  • A 2020 study at Indiana University found that a belonging intervention exercise, in which students with historically low retention rates were proactively guided into communities, improved those students’ retention rates compared to the control group.
  • In a 2022 Penn State University study, researchers sponsored by the National Institutes of Health found that students with a stronger sense of community before the COVID-19 pandemic had lower rates of anxiety and depression during the pandemic. They were also less likely to drop out of college.

Our own research backs up these studies, as well. The Concept3D 2023 Student Retention Survey found that the second biggest reason students transfer elsewhere is to find a more vibrant and active campus community. Meanwhile, two-thirds of respondents would have reconsidered their decision to transfer out if their original school offered more campus and community events.

Again and again, researchers come across that sense of community as a core reason why students stay at an institution. A deeper dive into the reasons behind retention may explain why that is the case.

4 Reasons Why a Sense of Community Drives Retention

College students laughing and enjoying a sense of community

We know a sense of community is vital to a healthy student retention rate. But now it’s time to dig into the reasons why. After all, only understanding the cause can help institutions build strategies specifically designed to improve their retention over time.

1. Engaging in Campus Life Drives Community Integration

First, and perhaps most obviously, college students who actively engage in campus life more naturally integrate into the college community. They find natural opportunities to connect with others, including (but certainly not limited to):

  • Student clubs and organizations, where students can find peers with like-minded interests
  • Club and intramural sports, in which the friendly level of competition can bring out the best in students
  • Greek life and cultural organizations, which prompt students to align their daily lives with each other
  • Varsity sports, specifically when it comes to fan culture prompting college students to cheer on their team together

No student participates in all of these opportunities. But even finding a single one that matches their interest can go a long way toward integrating into campus and building that sense of community over time.

2. Early Community Integration Eases the College Transition

Speaking of community integration, timing matters. The earlier this process happens for students, the more successfully they will transition to becoming college students. Keep in mind that this is a major shift for students. In all likelihood, it’s the biggest change in their daily life since birth. That sense of community can go a long way toward easing the stresses that come with it.

Consider, for example, the ability of a well-planned first-year orientation or move-in day to create community among your incoming class. By thinking beyond the technical and academic information you have to communicate, you can provide opportunities for students to get to know each other and participate in mutual activities.

By the time they move in and classes start, students who have participated in these activities suddenly have a head start. They might already know some of their classmates and feel more comfortable around campus. As a result, they become more likely to stay at the institution that has naturally become their new home.

3. The Campus Community as an Early Intervention Support System

Crucially, a strong campus community can also help students when something is wrong. We know that mental health has become a major issue across institutions. Students are increasingly experiencing crises of depression and anxiety. That’s before we even discuss academic factors that could lead to stress and anxiety, especially for new students adjusting to more stringent learning processes.

In that environment, a strong sense of community on campus can serve as an early warning system. Peers will notice when a student stops attending classes or showing up for regular dinners with friends. Professors who know the student will become more likely to seek help rather than just give a student a failing or DNP grade.

Consciously or not, students almost naturally build this sort of support system. They surround themselves with people who are likely to care when something goes wrong. That’s another reason why they build that sense of community—and why the community becomes a crucial retention factor in the process.

4. The Mutual Benefits of a Thriving Campus Event Scene

Finally, building that strong community among your students can also benefit your campus events. This phenomenon, in turn, further contributes to building community.

Students who are more engaged on campus will become more likely to attend events, from campus-wide performances to fun activities like field trips sponsored by SGA or an open mic night in the student center. At the same time, events with higher attendance build interest even for students who might not otherwise attend. If everyone else goes to bingo night, it’s more difficult to say no.

Over time, these trends begin to sustain each other. The campus builds a more thriving event scene, which in turn builds a stronger sense of community. Also, as we’ve already discussed the importance of campus events to community building, the benefits ultimately result in more engaged students and higher engagement rates.

How to Build Your Sense of Community to Drive Improved Retention

The reasons why campus community matters so much point out a clear roadmap to building community. We’ve written elsewhere about strategies to boost your student engagement and opportunities to increase your retention rate, many of which revolve around exactly that sense of community. Some of the tactics you can embrace include:

  •  Starting engagement early
  • Making it easy to engage
  • Allocating adequate resources
  • Building an active calendar of events

But ultimately, and especially given the technology preferences of today’s college students, it’s impossible to embrace these strategies without a focus on technology. The right digital tools, such as an integrated events calendar and strong wayfinding for anything from campus events to your student center, are vital in helping your students find each other and stick together.

That’s where Concept3D comes in. Our virtual tour, campus map, and calendar solutions can play a vital role in helping your students build community. With us, your strategies can begin as early as orientation and stretch all the way to graduation. Ready to learn more? Contact us to start the conversation today.