student success

Five keys for new retention managers: Things I wish I had learned as a retention rookie

Timothy Culver

Vice President, Consulting Services

July 18, 2012

Imagine your retention situation to be like a baseball game. It’s the bottom of the ninth, your team is up 5 to 2, the other team is batting, you have two outs, and there are three runners on base. Your worst nightmare is at the plate and you’re called up from the bullpen to stop disaster from striking. It’s also your first appearance in the big leagues. Yes, you’re a rookie.

What will you do? And how do you keep your cool?

No fear, I have some words of advice for you since I know how you feel. I was once a student retention rookie, and I wish someone then had told me five things I should or shouldn’t do. That did not happen. Like many of you, I was tagged to be “the one”—to be the retention leader on campus and to come up with something that was going to make our student success rates better. I was afraid of striking out and threw too many wild pitches, too. I had so many full counts with runners on base that it was pathetic. A tear comes to my face as I dreamed about hitting a home run. But early on the pop flies were abundant and I had to punt so many times (wait, that’s another analogy!)…. You get the idea.

However, if I could go back to my rookie self and offer five pieces of advice, they would be:

  1. Retention is not what you do. Retention is an outcome of what you do. Helping your students to be successful by giving them what they need before they know they need it is job one. Don’t make them come ask for it. Make it available because you know it’s the right thing to do.
  2. Gather the village. Remember that old saying, “Retention is everybody’s job?” I don’t buy it. I think that only means retention is no one’s job and that anybody can do it. We all know we don’t want everybody doing it. Sometimes it’s better to have a leader like you who can coordinate everyone and get them on the same page so you can give students what they need before they know they need it. Try to work within your organization chart and create all kinds of dotted lines and webs of influence so as to promote coordination and cooperation. Don’t let the silos stop you.
  3. Get your data together. I think one of the top reasons why rookies strike out is that they don’t know normal persistence, progression, retention, and completion rates for their own institution or for others. It’s important to know benchmarks for schools like yours so you don’t go crazy with setting unrealistic goals. You need to know how your competitors and aspirant groups are doing too so when you do hit the grand slam everyone will know it. Have you ever looked at If not, go take a look and compare your school to ones similar to yours. Also, if you are attending the National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing, and Retention, I’ll have these figures at my sessions (or drop me an e-mail if you are not attending.)
  4. Try to manage milestone completion but be aware of your attrition curve. See the example below. There are just as many students who are going to leave you no matter what you do (Tail A) who will stay with you no matter what you do (Tail B). I call the tails of your attrition curve the “it’s-not-about-you” students. These are your significant other students who are in your office five times a day asking the same question.  You are connected to them already. My advice is to get connected to the students in the area under the curve (Area C) and make sure you’re reaching out to the “middle children” who many times prefer to remain hidden or out of sight even in tough times.
    The attrition curve illustrates which sets of college students are able to be influenced by student retention strategies, and which students will either stay or leave regardless of what the institution does to change their mind.
  5. Don’t ever forget why you’re doing what you’re doing. The minute you get all bogged down in campus dynamics and politics you forget that the student is the reason. Be the champion that they deserve. Be the one they can look toward for engagement and involvement. Be the one they can rest assured that you have their back. Be the one that pitches the strike during the bottom of the ninth when you’re up 5 to 2 with three runners on base. Just remember that, just like baseball, it requires training, practice, and dedication.

What makes you a rookie? What questions do you have for the rookies of America? I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to send me an e-mail, and if you are attending the Noel-Levitz National Conference, I look forward to seeing you in Chicago.

About the Author

Dr. Tim Culver leads the retention consulting services of RNL, offering counsel to help institutions develop, implement, and evaluate plans for improving enrollment, student success, persistence, retention, and degree completion rates. He has expertise in...

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