student success

Four ways to use student satisfaction data to improve college student retention

Julie Bryant

Associate Vice President of Retention Solutions

October 9, 2013

When I talk with campuses about why they assess student satisfaction, I often hear three primary reasons: 1) retention efforts; 2) strategic planning; and 3) accreditation requirements. Today, I want to share some thoughts with you on how to best utilize your satisfaction assessment results with a retention emphasis. These suggestions can apply if you are using the Noel-Levitz Satisfaction-Priorities Surveys or your own homegrown instrument.

The link between student satisfaction and college student retention

Four ways to use student satisfaction data to improve college student retention
By using your data strategically, you are likely to improve your overall satisfaction scores and see your retention rates improve.

In a 2009 study, Dr. Laurie Schreiner documented the link between student satisfaction and retention, reporting that satisfaction accounts for 17 percent of the variation in retention. This is the largest indicator behind unknown factors which account for 75 percent of the variance. (Institutional features and demographic characteristics account for less than 4 percent each.) This study is specific to four-year private and public institutions—we are currently conducting a similar study for two-year community colleges—but it’s clear that there is a strong relationship between how satisfied students are and their persistence.

So how can campuses use student satisfaction data to make a positive impact on student retention? I have four suggestions that have worked for many campuses using the Noel-Levitz surveys:

1. Focus on campus climate items

The Noel-Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI) has a series of items focusing on how students FEEL about being on campus. We cluster these items into a Campus Climate scale, which includes items such as:

  • This institution shows concern for students as individuals;
  • It is an enjoyable experience to be a student here;
  • I seldom get the “run-around” when seeking information on this campus;
  • Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment;
  • The campus staff are caring and helpful; etc.

As reflected in Dr. Schreiner’s study, Campus Climate items are strongly correlated with overall student satisfaction and retention.

To improve overall satisfaction, you can focus your efforts to improve the student experience by training your staff to provide good customer service and setting expectations for positive interactions with students, from your president, to the faculty, to your registrar office and financial aid counselors, and all the way to the custodial staff. Is every single person committed to providing the best experience for the student in every situation?

You can also explore ways to reduce campus “run-around.” Do your policies and procedures make sense? Are your staff members able to answer questions and solve problems? Does your phone system allow students to talk to real people?

The perception around your tuition being worthwhile can contribute to satisfaction with your campus climate. Are you communicating the value of your tuition or a degree from your institution, not just with students, but with parents and guardians who may influence students’ enrollment decisions? I have addressed this topic in a previous blog. One of the most powerful communications I received from my daughter’s college was a letter from the CEO of a large, well-recognized corporation who is a graduate of the college. He discussed how his experience there influenced his career. That letter helped to confirm in my mind that the tuition would be worthwhile, but it wouldn’t hurt to remind me of that before her sophomore or junior years. Can you do something similar with your students and their parents?

2. Celebrate your institutional strengths

Strengths are typically defined as items of high importance and high satisfaction to your students. Every campus has things that they are doing relatively well. These are areas that you can celebrate and build upon. The staff who are working in these areas need to know that they are valued by students, which may motivate them to continue to do a good job. You can also use high performing areas as positive models for other areas that may be struggling. For example, are students giving high marks to advisors? If so, build on those relationships to help students get better connected with other services on campus.

3. Improve the items that students care about

Your students’ priorities should be your institution’s priorities. Noel-Levitz defines challenges as items of high importance and low satisfaction. You will want to align your areas of focus with these top priority issues. Typically campuses respond to challenges by changing policies or procedures and/or incorporating these priority items into long-term strategic plans. Another approach is to improve campus communication around critical issues.

4. Communicate regarding changes that have been made

I have talked in a previous blog about the power of communication to improve satisfaction. I continue to believe that this is one of the most powerful and cost-effective ways to improve overall satisfaction for your students, because it also speaks to your campus climate and how transparent you are as an organization. I encourage campuses to be intentional in their communications regarding the improvements that have been made as results of the satisfaction data. This allows you to show students that you are listening to them and responding appropriately, which will make them feel cared about, leading to improved satisfaction and ultimately retention.

By using your data in these four ways, you are likely to improve your overall satisfaction scores and see your retention rates improve. When we survey our own SSI clients, 58 percent indicate that retention has improved on their campus and 60 percent report increased satisfaction over multiple years.

Feel free to let me know how you are using your satisfaction assessment results to improve retention at your campus, or e-mail me if I can assist you with a future satisfaction survey administration.

About the Author

Julie Bryant of RNL

Julie L. Bryant, associate vice president of retention solutions at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America in the area of satisfaction assessment. Ms Bryant is responsible for client service...

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