January is a key month on college campuses for enrollment managers and others who are monitoring enrollment. Recruitment leaders are looking forward to monitor how the entering class is shaping up. And simultaneously, those responsible for retention are looking backward to assess any fall term progress made in improving term-to-term persistence rates.
The connection between retention and recruitment has never been stronger. As my colleague, Kevin Crockett, observed in his recent blog, “the number of high school graduates is expected to show virtually no growth over the next seven years.” The likelihood of maintaining, much less increasing, the number of students enrolled on college campuses across the country is not going to be the result of just recruitment efforts. Retaining the students already enrolled is an increasingly important strategy.
What can you do now, this term, to improve college retention and graduation rates?
Let me offer 6 strategies that you can implement now to have a direct impact on the enrollment numbers on your campus through retention:
- Connect first-year students to their end goals. Our data from the Mid-Year Student Assessment (MYSA) indicate an overwhelming desire for career development assistance as students move into their second terms of enrollment. All too often, career development programs and services are designed for upper-level students but students in their first-year have their hands raised, too, for this critical educational planning information. When students have a plan that helps them see the pathway through college to a career (even though they may change their plan), they are more likely to push through barriers and remain enrolled.
- Look backward carefully. To pinpoint opportunities for improvements, take a careful look at your institution’s internal trendlines for term-to-term persistence for the past three to five years, then compare these to external benchmarks. Slice these trends by program, by subcohorts, by GPA, and other indicators that allow you to get your arms around pertinent issues.
- Expand your academic recovery programs beyond students on academic warning/probation. Students who are low-performing (below a 2.5 GPA) are at risk, even if they aren’t on probation. I was studying data from a client campus recently and saw a consistent pattern of significantly lower retention and graduation rates of “underperforming” students. Many campuses have strong academic recovery programs but these are too often focused on students on academic probation. What would it take on your campus to expand your academic recovery program to those who are “underperforming”? Helping these students improve their GPAs (and finding a clear path) is worthy of your efforts, too.
- Pay attention to your second-year students, too. Many campuses continue to experience double-digit attrition after the third and fourth terms. If graduation rates are going to improve, attention must be given to second-year students as well as first-year students. We advocate clients develop a first through fourth semester/term student success plan. The data we have gathered from the Second-Year Student Assessment indicate high demand for information about internships, employment options related to their majors, academic support and study skills development, and affirmation that their educational plan will help them graduate on time.
- Develop a robust “Recruit-Back Strategy.” Do you know which of your students are planning on leaving at the end of this term? Most of these students will be in good academic standing. Who has requested a transcript be sent to another institution? Who has not registered for classes, signed up for housing, or applied for financial aid for the next academic year? Monitoring these “attrition triggers” and engaging students in meaningful, problem-solving conversations can help improve retention rates for the next term.
- Take advantage of the Prior-Prior Year financial aid changes and award current students their financial aid packages earlier. We recommend awarding for the next year in the spring term prior to students leaving campus for the summer. Provide these awards in a timely manner with a strong communications follow-up plan so that students who are anticipating not returning for financial reasons have time to work with you to resolve their issues and increase their likelihood of continuing enrollment with you.
Start out strong in 2017 with enrollment firing on all cylinders
We hope find these suggestions to improve college retention and graduation rates helpful as you work at building enrollment through both recruitment and retention in 2017. Our research and regular visits to campuses show us that many institutions have substantial, untapped opportunities to grow enrollment by enhancing student success.
Questions? Want to discuss your strategy with an expert?
If you have questions or would like to discuss strategies to improve college retention and graduation rates with an expert, please email or call us at 800.876.1117.