How to improve student retention rates at your institution

High retention benefits learners and institutions. Here's how to improve it

Clock 4 min read Calendar Published: 17 Jan 2023
Author Abby Driver
How to improve student retention rates at your institution

Every college wants to improve retention. It’s a key measure of an institution’s success, and can reveal serious problems if it dips.

So what is student retention? What kind of rate can you measure yours against? And most importantly, how can you improve it?

What is student retention?

Student retention refers to the percentage of students returning to an institution after an academic year. So working to improve student retention means developing a strategy to limit the number of students that drop out of their programs, or education altogether.

What’s the average retention rate?

Without context, it can be hard to know whether your current retention rate is good or needs work.

According to the latest data available from The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the retention rate in the US is currently 66.4%

The retention rate is down from pre-pandemic levels of 67% in 2018, and only 1% higher than in 2009 when this data was first tracked. 

Though this number is not ideal, and indicates structural problems with retention nationwide, it’s the first yardstick for measuring your own retention rate.

How retention affects your institution and students

It’s an obvious but important point: high student numbers means better financial outcomes for institutions.

There’s some indication that enrolment rates have peaked, meaning that retaining students at your institution could be critical to its success

In the fall of 2020, 19.4 million students attended colleges and universities, around 10% lower compared with a decade ago when enrolment peaked at 21.6 million students.

There are plenty of reasons why a student may drop out before graduation. We've covered some of these in a previous article, but some of the key causes for a student leaving higher education include financial concerns, social isolation and burnout.

Unfortunately, dropping out can have a negative long term impact, leading to limited access to professional careers and lower paying jobs. 

But dropping out doesn't just impact students' wellbeing, it also costs the higher education sector. As well as the financial burden, lower student retention rates also affect graduation rates, a metric many use to assess how well an institution is performing. 

How to increase student retention

Increasing student retention across your institution isn’t easy. But no matter what department you work in, a few simple measures can help your students feel more secure in their education and more likely to persist.

Get off to a good start

Most students that drop out will do so in the first year, so setting your freshmen up for success is key. You can help your retention rates before new students even set foot on campus, with a smooth, effective onboarding process. Instead of bombarding students with information, keep it easy to navigate and provide them with opportunities to connect with others ahead of their arrival. 

Financial help awareness 

Higher education costs have been rising for a number of years now, with inflation the latest cause responsible for increased dropout rates. While lowering fees may not be possible, your institution can increase awareness of all the various financial aid, scholarships and grant opportunities that are available. 

You can also keep students informed about jobs, both on campus and in the community. Use a dedicated online jobs board which students can easily access.

Identify and help at risk students earlier 

Developing a system for tracking students at risk of dropping out will allow you to intervene before it’s too late. You could consider metrics such as attendance and coursework completion. When students dip below a predetermined level, schedule a meeting to find out why they’re struggling and equip them to develop strategies to cope better. 

An in-person meeting is better than a generic email or letter, as these at-risk students will benefit most from an individual response. 

For example, a student who has suffered a bereavement will require a different strategy than a student who has enthusiastically adopted a freshman party lifestyle. Both may result in the same behaviour (absenteeism, missed deadlines), but they will require very different approaches. 

Regularly poll and survey students

One of the simplest and most effective ways to increase student retention is to engage with regular polling and surveys. These allow you to keep your finger on the pulse of student mood, spot any issues and crucially, quickly rectify them. 

Foster community 

Social isolation is a big problem for today’s students; a recent survey revealed over half of current college students feel lonely. This is an increasingly important issue in the age of remote and hybrid learning

Student isolation can be approached in numerous ways. You could develop a network of peers to work with first year students to help them settle in and become comfortable on campus, you could increase awareness of student organizations and clubs, or you could arrange regular social mixers for each department. Use your data to decide what the biggest wins would be at your institution.

Improve study skills

The difference between school and college is colossal for some students. An often cited reason for dropping out is feeling unable to cope with academic demands, and this is another area where you can make a difference and increase retention rates. There are plenty of retention tactics to try, but sometimes going back to basics can be useful. 

It’s well documented that institutions can impact student behaviour; for example the Research Institute of Industrial Economics found students who have been offered a free gym membership for one semester went to the gym more (their academic performance improved too). 

Think of which interventions would best help your students, whether that's focusing on their wellbeing (as in the case of free gym memberships) or something more concretely linked to college, such as running some study skills workshops or offering a peer mentor program. 

Getting started

To improve retention rates, you need to start with a few key conversations across campus.

Get an understanding of what initiatives and efforts are underway already and how your department can coordinate with others. What opportunities do you have to share data and best practice? Who are the key people that could help you with projects of your own? Find all of this out and you’ll be able to strategize long term.

In the meantime, get started with a few small measures, like the ones identified above, to help students feel comfortable and secure in their learning. Even small gestures can make a big impact on learners feeling vulnerable or low on confidence.

Ultimately, the best way to tackle the issue is to develop a student retention plan bespoke to your institution that addresses the unique needs of your students. And the best proactive student retention strategies are informed by data and supported and implemented across departments. 

With a little upfront work and coordinated effort over time, you can help keep students in education and towards a more successful adult life.


Want to learn more?

Check out our latest webinar recording where we discussed why equipping students with the tools to engage with and learn effectively from class can lead to a rise in graduation rates.

Watch the recording
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