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Student Success: How to Improve Retention Rates

  • 3 Min Read

Some important strategies institutions can use to encourage retention early on in students’ learning journeys.

To varying degrees, improving graduation and retention rates are always a nagging issue. There are hard costs associated with recruiting to replace students who don’t make it through to graduation. Keeping the students who’ve already been recruited and enrolled is, by far, the most cost-effective means of improving graduation rates.

The question is how to go about it. What can be done to keep the students in your institution?  This post will start looking at some of the answers to that question.

Academic Monitoring

On-going academic monitoring for the first couple of years is important. Academic advisors should be monitoring student performance in “gateway” courses for discipline-specific programs to make sure that students perform at the levels they need to succeed and complete their program. If a student wants to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing, that student must be able to successfully complete the basic biology, anatomy and physiology courses required.

Helping the student to monitor their performance and develop proper expectations early on in their academic career will encourage them to persist in their academic journey.

Students with mixed scholastic backgrounds need adequate academic, social, and financial support to move through gateway courses that are aligned to their programs of study. The performance data collected from the student is a big part of this monitoring process.

Check out how Oral Roberts University is using student data to solve student retention:

Learning Communities

Developing learning communities–groups of people who have common academic goals and attitudes, and meet regularly to collaborate on course work–within curriculums, and encouraging students to actively participate in them, is another strategy that institutions can use to improve student success early on, and ultimately improve retention.

Lots of articles profile research on the effectiveness of learning communities. They show a positive correlation between learning community participation and the retention rate of those students as compared to students who participated in a traditional curriculum [1].

While learning communities are not a magic solution for student success, they are an effective method for helping students develop stronger bonds and remain engaged in the educational process. Evidence indicates that when students are introduced to the learning community structure early on in their university career, the benefits stick around well into their senior year [2].

Proactive Student Support Strategies

Here are some more steps and strategies for supporting student success and encouraging retention early on that were developed for a report prepared by the Educational Research Institute of America for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education:

  • Ease the transition to college with preparatory summer programs ahead of entry.
  • Restructure developmental education programs so remediation is fast-tracked and more at-risk students enroll in credit-bearing courses sooner – reducing time to degree.
  • Offer highly structured pathways to degree completion with course sequences clearly mapped and limited options and alternatives.
  • Use technology to build a supplementary advising system that presents clear degree maps, allows for self-monitoring of progress and provides immediate warnings related to consequences of course selections, withdrawals, and credit transfers.
  • Build a system of guaranteed credit transferability from affiliated institutions, and acceptance of prior learning credits to aid re-entry of returning and adult college students.
  • Implement a strong learning community infrastructure as a required component.
  • Proactively promote and provide in-person advising and counseling services, and make retention a primary focus of advising programs.

In the second part of this two-part post, we’ll look at how institutions can develop strategies tailored towards improving retention amongst two key student demos: non-traditional and first-generation students.




[1] Tinto, Vincent. “Learning better together: The impact of learning communities on student success.” Higher Education monograph series 1.8 (2003).

[2] Zhao, Chun-Mei, and George D. Kuh. “Adding value: Learning communities and student engagement.” Research in higher education 45.2 (2004): 115-138.

Written by:

Michael Moore

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Table of Contents

  1. Academic Monitoring
  2. Learning Communities
  3. Proactive Student Support Strategies