The benefits of retaining students

Now's the time to focus on student retention. Here's why.

Clock 4 min read Calendar Published: 17 Jan 2023
Author Abby Driver
The benefits of retaining students

Given the costs associated with student recruitment, it makes sense to focus on improving student retention rates. And that's without getting into the benefits for learners themselves. Delayed graduation or dropout is often preventable, so we want to give you a few tips to help you keep your students learning.

First up, let’s look at the current landscape…

The issues facing institutions

Before we look at some of the main reasons to retain a student, let’s explore some of the current challenges institutions face.

1. Student retention rates

According to recent data, the retention rate in the US is currently 66.4%, which is slightly down on the pre-pandemic levels of 67% in 2018, and only 1% higher than in 2009 when the tracking of this data first started. 

2. Enrollment rates

Along with retention rates, at best, stalling, there is growing concern that overall enrollment rates have peaked too. In the US in the autumn of 2020, 19.4 million students attended colleges and universities. This number is about 10% lower compared with a decade ago, when enrollment was reported at  21.6 million students. 

3. International student enrollment rates

International student enrollment plummeted during the pandemic and while it is thankfully on the road to recovery, there are still some areas that fall short of pre-pandemic numbers. 

For example, the latest research found that while overall enrollment of first-year international undergraduates rose by 20% this year, the total number of international undergraduate enrollment actually fell by 4%. 

It's likely that many international students who relocated home during the pandemic then stayed there. Another notable issue is Chinese student enrollment has continued to fall, dropping a further 9% overall this year.

Benefits of student retention for institutions 

Financial costs

One of the immediate benefits of student retention for institutions is financial. Research estimates that students who leave college before graduating can cost around $40,000 each. This could be made up of the initial enrollment costs (considered to be somewhere between $2,000-$4,000), scholarships, and financial aid. Over time, it could also affect operational budgets and alumni donor schemes too. 

Signals success

Retention is a clear indicator of how an institution is performing. If the retention rate is lower than the national average, prospective students will be asking why. Whereas a higher than average retention rate signals that current students are satisfied with their course program, quality of teaching, and campus life. In 2022 peer review culture is strong (for example, 84% of shoppers now read online reviews before purchasing), so key metrics like a strong retention rate really do matter. 

Highlights problems 

This one might sound odd to start with, but go with us! 

Any institution with a high retention rate likely has a system in place for managing this. Such a system might include a way of identifying students at risk of dropping out, along with student feedback (such as surveys or polls). These tools enable an institution to spot problems quickly and deal with them effectively, not only improving retention rates but improving the overall student experience.

Benefits of student retention for students 

Development benefits 

Going to college is the first time many students have lived independently, without parents or guardians. For many, this is a useful first step as it comes with the added safety net of easily accessed support services should they encounter any problems. The practical life skills that are developed during this time are invaluable and could include many soft skills like time management and interpersonal communication.

Long-term career prospects 

It's common to see job listings state 'degree required' these days, it reflects companies seeing a real value in degrees. One survey carried out by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found 87% of employers surveyed said college was "definitely" or "probably" worth it. Research has also found that people without a college degree are also more than twice as likely to end up unemployed. 

And when it comes to deriving satisfaction from jobs, college graduates win too. A Pew Research Center report found that 77% of workers with a postgraduate degree, plus 60% of workers with a bachelor's degree, believe their jobs give them a ‘sense of identity’. This is compared with just 38% of those with only a high school diploma or less.

Earning ability 

Research has found that people who dropout of college earn, on average, $21,000 less per year than graduates. A report looking at “The High Cost of Low Graduation Rates,” found that students who didn’t graduate within six years cost the US around $3.8 billion in lost income and $566 million in federal taxes.  

Another paper suggests that improving the graduation rate from 57% to 84% for just one cohort of students would increase employment by 107,400, increase annual wages for 520,000 additional four-year degree holders by an average of $19,034, reduce the number of people in poverty by 48,000 and, over the course of a lifetime,  increase the amount of local, state, and federal tax revenue by more than $90 billion. 

In conclusion…

Against a backdrop of stalling or falling enrollment rates, the benefits of retaining students becomes even more evident. 

From the institution's viewpoint, it just makes good financial sense. Student recruitment is costly, so the more students it can hold on to the better. It's also a useful metric that other people will consider when looking at the institution, especially potential students. An unusual benefit of retaining students comes from the systems that enable this. Such systems likely involve flagging up problems quickly, meaning you can resolve them and increase overall student satisfaction. 

There are also clear benefits for students. They get to develop core practical life skills with the safety net of a supportive community, but they'll also enjoy better long-term career prospects, are less likely to face unemployment and more likely to earn more compared with people who don’t graduate from college.


Find out more information

We recently ran a webinar where we discussed the benefits of equipping students with the right tools to increase engagement. Are you interested in seeing its impact on retention and how it could lead to an increase in graduation rates?

Check out the recording to find out more.

Watch the recording
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