The student retention champion’s checklist: 7 strategies for increasing college student success

Jennifer WickVice PresidentAugust 27, 2015

Co-written with Kathy Kurz

The checklist below will provide some food for thought about not only what you should be doing to increase persistence, but about the responsibilities of your college student retention champion.

Kathy Kurz served as vice president of Scannell & Kurz before her retirement. She has extensive experience in retention programs and strategic financial aid, and served at the University of Rochester and Earlham College.

Although you are at the very beginning of a new school year, we suspect many of you are already thinking about retention, especially if fewer students returned than anticipated. But for many campuses, it’s not clear who should be the one leading that thinking.

Time and again during the course of retention best practice reviews, we find that the institution has not appointed a retention “champion.” Numerous individuals from enrollment, student affairs, and academic leadership may be working on various aspects of retention, and there may even be a retention committee or task force, but there is no clear, integrated vision for retention strategies informed by data. In this scenario, because retention is everyone’s responsibility, in effect it becomes no one’s responsibility.

A concerted effort from all parts of the institution is needed for a successful retention program, but because we all know what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, assigning a retention champion is critical to keeping the community focused on the most impactful retention efforts. Typically this champion would also have supervisory responsibility for those areas that are most critical to retention outcomes at the institution. For example, at many institutions, academic success is critical to persistence. Consequently, the retention champion should have supervisory responsibility for all academic support services.

It is also critical that the champion be able to command the respect of both student life professionals and faculty while working toward greater collaboration between these two areas. Often the retention champion reports directly to the president or jointly to the president and provost as a clear signal of the centrality and cross-divisional nature of this work. The champion need not be responsible only for retention (depending on the size of the institution), but if also overseeing other initiatives, must be able to ensure a balanced effort.

Finally, the retention champion must not only provide organizational leadership, but should also be responsible for ensuring retention initiatives are founded in data analysis. Ideally, institutional data—grades, advising, housing, exit interviews, etc.—are combined with external data—National Student Clearinghouse, for example—to “triangulate” solutions. Even when institutions do conduct robust analyses on retention data, this work is episodic rather than sustained, making it difficult to identify trends. And if institutions take the next step to act on the findings, many do not rigorously analyze the impact that these programs have had on persistence to determine whether the investments represent the most effective use of institutional resources. Assigning clear responsibility increases the likelihood that these activities will occur.

The seven-point checklist for a college retention champion

Once your campus has that champion, how can you support him or her? These seven strategies have worked for many campuses, and hopefully will provide some food for thought and discussion about not only what you should be doing to increase persistence, but about the responsibilities of your retention champion.

  1. Implement EARLY warning systems—and by early we mean in the first two weeks of the term.  Remember that the system needs to not only identify at-risk students, but also include a follow-up plan to be implemented for each student identified. Student motivational assessments allow you to be even more proactive in identifying at-risk students, so you can act before students have difficulty. You also should be requiring support services from the get-go.
  2. Offer programs or social activities to link students to faculty in their intended major. In most cases, freshmen are taking general education core courses during their first semester, not courses related to their major. Also, at many institutions, first-year advisors are not faculty in the major. So without planning special welcome activities, students could go through their entire first semester, or even their first year, with no contact with faculty or upperclassmen in their major.
  3. Communicate with parents. Just as it is important to include a parent communication track when recruiting students, it is helpful to keep parents in the loop about campus resources available for students. They can help encourage students to take advantage of those resources.
  4. Ensure that your services are easy to navigate. Minimize overlaps and gaps, particularly in academic support services, and make sure that such services are well advertised. Regarding administrative services, best practice today is to have a “virtual” one-stop-shop through online portals that provide a full array of self-service options. However, not all questions can be addressed through self-service, so ensure that key administrative service offices like registrar, financial aid, student accounts, and academic advising are well integrated and cross trained.
  5. Provide ways for students to connect to other students. This can be especially challenging for institutions with large commuter populations. Using peer advisors in a freshman course that is required of all students (e.g., a freshman writing seminar or “University 101” course) is one option. In addition, encouraging or requiring group work in freshman level classes can also help commuters feel more connected.
  6. Use data to target efforts and evaluate programs. Often institutions invest resources to improve retention based on anecdotes rather than data. For example, some institutions offer additional gift aid to students with high levels of borrowing based on the assumption that they would otherwise lose those students. However, our retention research often finds that the most effective form of financial aid for retention purposes is campus employment, and that creating more student jobs would be a better investment of institutional resources than offering more grant aid. Consequently, we would encourage you to examine retention rates by subpopulation—or even better use predictive modeling—to understand the student characteristics correlated to retention or attrition. Then your retention efforts can be focused more efficiently. Similarly, data can be used to identify courses with high failure rates so that supplemental instruction can be provided for those courses.
  7. Don’t forget about second-year students and beyond. Many institutions have extensive services and programs targeted at incoming students, but almost nothing for students entering their second year at the institution. Sophomores face different challenges than freshmen. They may be facing the need to change a major, having realized they will not be successful in their initial choice. Or they may be having difficulty choosing a major, having entered as undecided. Again, analyzing the factors that impact retention from first-to-second year can help ensure that your intervention efforts are well targeted. (For more on the changing attitudes of second-year students, see Attitudes of Second-Year College Students That Influence Completion.)

How can you create a champion retention program?

While these are strategies that have worked well for campuses, finding your champion and implementing strategies like these can be difficult. If you wonder how you can unify your campus toward purposeful change for student success, email me and I would be happy to set up a time to discuss retention strategies.  I can help you figure out how to transform retention from something many people talk about into a strategic process that guides more of your hard-earned students to graduation.

About the Author

Jen Wick provides consulting on a wide range of enrollment management topics from pricing and financial aid strategies, retention initiatives, and recruitment planning to operations in student service offices. Jen previously served at Clarkson University,...

Read more about Jennifer's experience and expertise

Reach Jennifer by e-mail at jen.wick@ruffalonl.com.

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