student success

Improving college student retention in the private postsecondary sector

Candace Rodeman

May 6, 2014

The rising cost of college attendance has made students more critical of attending postsecondary institutions. While a college degree is still valued, spiraling costs have triggered emphatic discussions about student debt and the actual worth of a college degree. This critical eye has perhaps impacted the private postsecondary sector the most. I think Fred Lockhart of the Arizona Private School Association (APSA) put it best when he told me that students entering private post-secondary schools want the best education in the least amount of time with the biggest return on investment.

The demographics of the students in this sector have also changed, especially the growth of adult/nontraditional learners who tend to be more purpose driven.Students in the private postsecondary sector also face critical issues impacting student retention, including academic preparedness, a student’s financial wherewithal, student communication, relationship building, tracking and documenting student interactions, and graduate outcomes.

Improving college student retention in the private postsecondary sector
What can private postsecondary institutions do to help more students complete their educational goals?

Thankfully, the schools in this sector have a great deal of support through state and national association memberships.The Association of Private Sector Schools and Universities (APSCU) and private postsecondary state associations feel strongly that school leadership needs to embrace a culture of caring and giving, and leaders need resources to make informed decisions.The associations also provide educational training and resources to their member schools. The national and state organizations act as resources for member institutions on public policy related to the sector and provide support for workforce development that will ultimately affect the students they serve. They also provide training at conferences, webinars, and online teaching modules for instructors that address the diverse learning styles in the classroom.

Still, it is important to know your students, and schools that demonstrate caring and giving to the individual needs of the students have more successful retention and graduate outcomes. Administrators and instructors need to be aware of the students’ academic preparedness, learning styles, and student engagement in order to affect student success. In particular, there are three ways campuses can reach out to students, alleviate barriers and stress, and convince them to remain enrolled and on the path to educational completion.

Assistance with financial management

Finances can be complex for students, especially those who attend private postsecondary institutions. Along with paying for tuition, books, and other educational expenses, they often have to juggle housing, food, transportation, childcare, medical, and other living expenses that traditional college students do not. These additional expenses can complicate completing assignments, attending classes, managing stress, and overall motivation. Debt management is also critical to organizational and student success. Campuses need to offer students resources to solve these complications in order to reduce stress and provide solutions important to student success. State and national organizations also have resources that can educate and train faculty and staff on working with students in this critical area.

Communication preferences

Knowing your student is important to proactive student retention, and knowing how to communicate with students can bridge gaps and build relationships that impact student success.Dan Levinson, on the board of the California Association of Private Post-Secondary Schools (CAPPS) expressed the importance of understanding millennial-age students and their communication preferences, such as preferring texting over phone calls and emails as the key to relationship building. Many other studies support this preference for texting to other types of communication. A recent paper indicated that students perceive texting and other emerging technologies as positive retention tools.

How does this relate to student retention? Building a culture of success includes implementing student success committees and orientations that address the individual needs of students, but if you cannot communicate with students on their level, your efforts will be futile. In addition, a student information system that can support texting and instant messaging can be a very valuable communication solution for sending and documenting vital information that would streamline student success efforts.Tracking and documenting student interactions are also critical pieces to understanding student needs.

Graduate outcomes

As I mentioned in the Fred Lockhart quote at the beginning of this post, students in the private postsecondary market want a return on their educational investment. Graduate outcomes have therefore become increasingly important to the career-minded students entering private postsecondary institutions. Furthermore, there is increasing pressure from governmental agencies for schools to provide documentation on graduate outcomes. It is important to include graduate success stories, alumni mentors, and opportunities for students to interact with alumni and potential employers as a student success strategy.

More strategies for retention

Some of the more common practices supported by the national and state associations that support retention efforts include:

  • Leadership that demonstrates a culture of caring.
  • Assessing the learning styles, needs, motivations, and strengths of your students.
  • Comprehensive orientation (including employers and alumni).
  • Establishing a student success committee driven by actionable items.
  • Formal and informal interactions with students including focus groups.

The strategies, perspectives, and support offered by the private postsecondary national and state organizations reflect a deep understanding of institutional and student needs vital for schools to make informed retention decisions. Noel-Levitz is making efforts to work with the national and state private school associations to support their retention efforts by providing resources to the membership schools. I will be participating and providing resources at the Arizona Private School Association, the NW Career College Association, and APSCU in May and June.Noel-Levitz has also designated resources specifically addressing the needs of private postsecondary schools.I am happy to discuss strategies for student success with you. Send me an email and we can talk about what strategies are working for other private postsecondary institutions.

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