Strategies to boost student retention every college & university must know

SOURCE: Sydney Rae/Unsplash

By Clara Chooi 

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Student retention, graduation rates and student outcomes are bugbears of every higher education institution. 

Wherever they are in the world, colleges and universities that are contending with the challenges of the digital era are all too familiar with this. 

Add to that a generation of students more discerning and more selective than their predecessors when it comes to how they spend their education dollars, and the challenge for survival becomes even greater.

This volatility is reflected in college and university dropout trends across popular destination markets like the US and UK. 

Rising dropout rates

Recent data in the UK show that the rise in college enrollment isn’t commensurate with graduation rates. On the contrary, more students are dropping out–and they are bailing much earlier on in their studies.

Data from the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that dropout rates have risen three years in a row now, with many giving up within 12 months of enrollment. In the worst-hit institutions, the rate is most dire with one in five not making it through to completion.

The same bleak story is told in US data. 


According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, on average, just 58.3 percent of students who started in the fall of 2012 earned their degrees six years later.

Sadly, this is already an improvement of 1.5 percentage points from those entering college in 2011. Even then, these numbers are for a six-year completion rate, which is two years longer than the duration of a typical degree.

On top of that, graduates are leaving college with a pile of debt and entering a workforce where, more often than not, they are finding themselves not in possession of the skills most in-demand. 

As for the dropout, it goes without saying that theirs will be a much tougher hill to climb, lest they share the same commercial, financial and technical acumen of multi-billionaires like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, to name a few.

student retention strategies
Why are so many students dropping out? Source: Shutterstock

Whither higher education?

Such an environment has made higher education become a much, much tougher sell for student recruiters.

From the gold standard of education, degrees are suddenly no longer the most reliable measure of an individual’s skill or knowledge level. 

Learning and skills training in the digital era have become continuous and lifelong, with universities and colleges no longer the only or best educational option, not unless you have enough time and money to spare.

This is a right nightmare for learning institutions, whose true and original purpose is to educate the generations of tomorrow.

And regardless of what the naysayers may say, a campus education can be a worthy investment, provided it is able to offer the best and most rewarding experience that money can buy, with a guarantee of high returns. 


But high returns doesn’t just mean high graduation rates.

It means better outcomes, with graduates leaving a college or a university job-ready and well-equipped with the type of soft and hard skills they’ll need to survive an automated future. 

For the institution, it fundamentally means focussing on student retention and outcomes instead of just graduation rates, as the latter suggests the university’s work is done when graduation scrolls are handed out and mortarboards are flung in the air.

Because it really isn’t. Graduation is just the starting point. A higher education qualification is meant to be the student’s springboard to success, both in life and at work. 

For the learning institution, its success is measured by how many of its graduates leave school to enter meaningful employment where, even if they cannot afford to fork out millions for a swanky Manhattan megamansion, they are earning a fair wage, paying off their college debt and saving enough money to stand a good chance at a comfortable life.

Boosting student retention in the age of hypercompetition

student retention strategies
Is the cost of a college degree worth the outcomes? Source: Shutterstock

To improve graduation rates and student outcomes, every institution needs a solid student retention strategy.

After all, there’s no real point in creating an amazing pathway programme when students still end up dropping out mid-way, due to reasons not related to the quality of the education they’re receiving.

It is also important not to conflate student outcomes with retention as although both concern student success, they are dictated by different factors.

There’s no single solution to this but there are strategies, best practices and critical areas the institution could focus on to increase its students’ chances of graduation. 

A good starting point would be understanding their students and the reasons why they may decide to drop out, whether it has to do with tuition costs (which they could help with financial aid), homesickness (enter counselling and student services), taking the wrong course (guidance counselling and predictive analytics could beat this), or something else entirely. 

An effective student retention strategy is also holistic, requiring buy-in and the participation of all relevant faculties and departments.

Here we’ve put together five suggestions for institutions to consider including in their student retention plan:

#1: Use data analytics as a prevention tool

There’s been plenty of controversy surrounding the use of data analytics to better understand and track student behaviour. 

The biggest concerns, of course, are the possibility of a security breach and the violation of individual privacy and the right to informational self-determination.

But as three higher education groups serving almost 2,500 institutions across the US emphasised recently: “Analytics can save higher education. Really.”


Case in point: Georgia State University. The institution was among the earliest adopters of predictive analytics in the higher education space, using the technology to track historical student behaviour data in order to predict the likelihood of a student dropping out. 

Armed with such information, they would act instead of react, rolling out necessary measures to guide a student back to success, such as offering them the option of switching courses or suggesting remedial classes or financial aid, or something else, depending on the student’s needs.

As a result, the institution managed to raise its six-year graduation rate from 32 percent in 2003 to over 54 percent in 2017.

Regardless of where you stand on the data debate, it is hard to argue with such a success rate.

When employed responsibly, with all users and vendors held accountable, there’s no denying that data analytics can help boost student retention at any institution and “save higher education. Really.”

#2: Combining recruitment with student retention

In an article this month on EdSurge, Robert Ubell, the vice dean emeritus of online learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, suggested that institutions abandon their division-of-labour approach to student recruitment and retention.

Colleges, he said, should be more focused on the student life cycle than on enrollment. He suggested that recruiters also take on the responsibility of keeping students in class, sticking with them through orientation and course selection, as well as the other challenges they may encounter throughout their learning journey.

As an example, Ubell cited the strategy employed by Lisa Bellantuono, George Washington University School of Business’ director of graduate admissions. He said when Bellantuono worked with him at the NYU’s School of Engineering, her method of coupling student recruitment with retention outperformed the average retention and graduation rates at most engineering schools, both on-campus and online.

“Our students achieved a 92 percent retention rate and graduation rates of nearly 80 percent,” he wrote.


It’s not difficult to understand why.

As their first point of contact, students naturally become reliant on recruiters for anything that would help them get settled into an institution.

It’s not to say the student wouldn’t later be capable of independence after they have passed this stage. But one who is struggling to cope with study or financial difficulties would prefer turning to a friendly face to help them deal with these challenges, rather than a stranger with no knowledge of their backgrounds.

#3: Intervention programmes & support services

Intervention is one of the best strategies to boost student retention. This means creating a support system to ensure the student knows that no problem is too difficult to fix, as long it is brought to the right person or persons.

If data analytics provides a forecast on the potential outcome of a student’s learning journey, intervention is where the work guiding them back on the path of success takes place. 

Intervention can include guidance counselling, mid-year student assessments or motivational programmes, among others, in addition to constant and consistent tracking of student performance. 


Lorain County Community College, for example, has a wide range of carefully-planned intervention strategies that have produced pretty impressive results.

These include making advising mandatory, making it a requirement for all students to attend orientation programmes, embedding a completion plan assignment for all students to develop in their “College 101” course, lowering the number of credit hours to complete a degree, as well as having advisors follow up on every alert and student withdrawal notification.

The results? There has been a 79 percent increase in credentials being awarded since 2011, as well as a 213 percent increase in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) graduation rate with the 2008-15 cohorts, going from 8 percent to 25 percent.

Peer support programmes are extremely useful as well, as they connect students with like-minded peers who could potentially be facing the same issues, or who may have faced and found a way to beat them.

These relationships and interactions can be life-changing for students, making them feel like they belong to a community, which motivates them to stay on.

Every campus should encourage and assist its students in establishing these student-led communities.

And they should have both an online and offline presence as it allows ease of access for those who may not necessarily be comfortable with in-person interactions, especially when dealing with personal grievances.

student retention strategies
Peer support programmes help struggling students feel they are a part of a community, and gives them a reason to want to stay. Source: Shutterstock

#4: Offering special grants/financial aid programme

Ask any institution: one of the main causes of college or university dropouts is money. Rather, the lack of it. 

A college education isn’t cheap; fees have risen steadily through the decades and is the chief reason why student debt has now peaked at nearly US$1.6 trillion in the US, exceeding accumulated car loans and even credit car debt.

According to The College Board, private tuition college fees, plus room and board could cost a student something like US$48,510 whilst the figure for education at a public college hovers around US$21,370. Analysis by Discover says costs have, on average, increased by 143 percent since 1963.

Financial aid programmes can be lifesavers for students facing debt issues in college.


In addition to scholarships, many schools offer emergency financial assistance in the form of grants that don’t require repayment.

The University of California, Davis, is one such school. In addition to emergency grants, the university also offers short-term loans that range from US$500 to US$1,500, enough to help the student get back on his or her feet.

The University of Rhode Island in its 2010 academic strategic plan, included a new financial aid model through which it has increased the share of students with financial needs receiving aid from 77 percent in 2010 to 92 percent in 2016.

Hanover Research, meanwhile, suggests tying financial aid to academic progress and student support, saying research has shown that student retention is higher when financial aid is contingent on performance such as GPA and class credits.

#5: Enlist faculty help

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, is enlisting the help of faculty members. 

As any institution would know, despite their best efforts to get at-risk students back on track, there’s still a risk of the student somehow landing outside their safety net.

But their instructors can help if they only knew how. Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Carl J. Strikwerda, the former president of Elizabethtown College, dean of arts and sciences at the College of William and Mary, and associate dean at the University of Kansas, pointed out:

“It is instructors who control their (students) fate. Colleges and universities can often do more, at less cost, to help at-risk students by concentrating on how to reach them most effectively in their academic work than by other means, as important as they may be.”

This, he says, means paying focus to shaping departmental culture and how individual instructors, especially during the first semester or year, can play a major role in guiding students to success.

“If colleges are willing to collect data at a more granular level, it almost always reveals that certain professors have learned how to reach at-risk students effectively and teach them skills to survive at the college,” he said.

“Other instructors can, and should, learn from them.”