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3 Ways to Improve Retention Rates in Higher Education

  • 5 Min Read

Around two-in-five undergraduate students in the U.S. drop out. Here are three ways to improve retention in higher education.


Why Retention is an Issue In Higher Ed

There were some confused looks during a large university’s first-year orientation last fall.

The first-year students had gathered to learn about their new campus, how to register for classes and how to deal with roommate issues. But they weren’t expecting what happened next. The orientation leader asked the students to look at the person to their left, then at the person to their right.

“One of these people won’t be here for their sophomore year,” the orientation leader told the students.

Improving student retention rates is a challenge that almost every higher education institution faces. A story in the Washington Post reported that the average dropout rate for undergraduate students in the U.S. is 40%. That means more than one in three students enrolled in four-year programs drop out before their second year. The numbers are even worse for community colleges, where only 5% of students in two-year programs graduate on time.

When students drop out of college and university, it significantly impacts their long-term earning potential and the overall economy. According to The Balance, people who drop out of college programs earn $21,000 less per year than college graduates.

The good news is that college and university administrators are starting to make headway in reducing dropout rates. They’re accomplishing this by creating innovative retention strategies. These strategies ensure that students have the proper support and programs to succeed in their first year—and carry that success forward through graduation.

3 Ways Universities and Colleges Can Improve Retention Rates

Here are three strategies college and university leaders can use to improve student retention.

Focus on the First-Year Experience

The transition from high school to college or university can be daunting. There’s a chance that students will contend with a smaller social safety net, as many are away from friends and family for the first time. First-year students must also develop an increased independence on everything from living away from home to managing class schedules and higher expectations for classwork.

In the same way that one-size-fits-all education doesn’t serve every student, a one-size-fits-all orientation can make some students, such as part-time learners or those with families, feel excluded. Higher education institutions can help make these transitions more successful by tailoring orientations to suit a variety of student demographics. In an example from Southern Utah University, EAB reported how the university created tailored orientation sessions for older students, veterans and international students.

Creating meaningful connections with other students can lead to a greater sense of community. Colleges and universities don’t have to wait until students step foot on campus, either. Virtual orientation and education sessions can help build connection and community, starting with admission through to on-campus orientation.

Make Use of Data Available in Your Learning Management System

Living away from home and navigating campus life aren’t the only challenges students face at college or university. Some students may be unprepared for the academic demands of higher education and require remedial courses to catch up. The Institution of Education Sciences released a report showing that up to 65% of community college students have taken at least one remedial course in their first year of study.

The data available in a learning management system (LMS) can help college and university administrators and instructors track student progress through their early studies. Identifying warning signs empowers educators with opportunities to provide additional tutoring or other assistance to students struggling academically.

Educational technology is there to guide students, too. LMS tools enable students to track their progression and see their path from English 101 all the way through to graduation.

In a post on the Association for Institutional Research, Alexander Wagner, Director of Institutional Research at Lesley University, wrote that there is a correlation between student engagement through technology and student success.

“A cumulative analysis of online student engagement following our spring break showed strong relationships between multiple measures of online engagement and grades for the past spring term,” Wagner wrote. “These relationships are so robust that we intend to utilize online student engagement measures as early predictors of student success in upcoming terms and to provide that analysis to our professional advisors for early interventions.”

Ensure Prospective Students Have Access to Financial Aid

The recent increase in advocacy for student loan forgiveness is a reminder of the financial pressure many students face while pursuing college and university degrees. Over 40% of respondents said they dropped out of college due to financial stress, according to a study by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.

The tuition challenges can come from eligibility requirements or financial aid status changes. They’re also driven by a sometimes-staggering divide between tuition rates and cost of living.

Providing the right financial aid programs and support can help reduce the financial pressure that leads to student dropout. The University of Pittsburgh created the Pitt Success program in 2019 to provide additional financial assistance to students who received Federal Pell Grants. The university later reported that the program increased its retention rate to over 90% on its Pittsburgh campus. Plus, students who came to the university as Pell-eligible in 2019 have taken on 24% less debt than in previous classes.

Supporting Students Promotes Success

Leveraging data from LMSs, improving the first-year experience and reducing financial pressures benefit students and universities alike. College graduates have an increased lifetime salary potential compared to students without a degree. There are also economic benefits for organizations that depend on educated employees to power their businesses. While implementing strategies to increase retention rates isn’t something that happens overnight, they are worth focusing on.

Written by:

Alex Kinsella

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Table of Contents

  1. Why Retention is an Issue In Higher Ed
  2. 3 Ways Universities and Colleges Can Improve Retention Rates
  3. Supporting Students Promotes Success