6 Key Tools to Improve Student Retention

on September 16, 2016

Admissions departments like yours continually strive to select students most likely to succeed at their college. However, many of these students will fail to persist from the freshman year to the sophomore year at even the most selective colleges. Some of the primary reasons why students drop out of college include financial problems, conflicts between school, home and work commitments, inadequate academic preparation, a lack of support systems and insufficient commitment to higher education.

Colleges can deploy the following initiatives to help improve retention and completion rates.

1. Retention Coordinator

Since efforts to reduce college dropout rates may require cooperation among multiple college departments, the first step is to appoint a coordinator with overall responsibility for retention, with a committee drawn from the administrative and academic departments that have an impact on student success.

2. Detection of Problems


Next, since intervention can be labor intensive, it is important to focus intervention efforts on the students who need help the most.

Start by creating an early warning system that monitors signs of potential problems, such as class attendance and academic performance. If a student is dropping many classes or the student's grades are deteriorating, it can be a sign of a problem. This can permit proactive intervention instead of reactive intervention, especially when the student doesn't realize there is a problem. Problems are easier to address when they are small. A well-designed tracking system can identify problems that have both an acute and a gradual onset.

It is also important to monitor the performance of students from at-risk populations, such as students who have a low high school GPA or admissions test scores, students who do not have a high school diploma, first-generation college students, low-income students, students who enroll part-time, students who work full-time while enrolled, non-traditional college students, students who are single parents and students who lack financial and emotional support from their families.


3. Academic Support


Individualized assessment and diagnostic testing can help students identify their strengths and weaknesses. For example, an emotional intelligence assessment (EQ) will show students some of the reasons why they are less likely to persist, so that they can overcome these obstacles. Diagnostic testing can also help personalize counseling, whether in-person or online, to make it more effective. 

The assessments can be used to create personalized action plans to remedy weaknesses and build on strengths. Examples include teaching students good study skills, writing workshops, orientation programs, freshman seminars and student success courses.

Some students don't know what they want to be when they grow up. An interest and skills inventory will identify academic majors that are a good fit for the student. Survey courses can give them a taste of each major, so they can crystalize their choice of major sooner.

It is also helpful to provide students with a path from enrollment to completion for each major, so they can create a schedule of which classes they need to take when. This will help them graduate on time.

Academic advising can help keep the student on the path to a degree. Tutoring services can address academic problems as they occur.

Incentives, such as an academic improvement award and financial reward, can motivate students to succeed.

4. Social Support


Some students don't have a mom back home who can nag them about partying too much and studying too little. A little nudge can go a long way toward keeping students on track.


Students are more likely to listen to each other than to adults. Creating support networks for each student will help them persist. This can include learning communities, support groups for at-risk student populations, and positive role models. Enrolling a posse as a group comes with built-in, strong social support. Peer mentoring and counseling programs can be particularly effective, especially if the peers are provided with some training.


5. Financial Support


Student finances are often fragile, with many students living at the edge of affordability or even a little beyond their means. Small funding shortfalls can have a disproportionate impact on student success, forcing students to drop out of college. Small emergencies can quickly grow into big problems. One bad decision can have a domino effect that gets out of control.


Some colleges have found that providing small emergency grants and loans can help keep the student in school.


6. Commitment


Students have many demands on their time. Conflicts between a student's school, home and work lives can contribute to a student dropping out of college. For example, students who work a full-time job while enrolled in college are half as likely to graduate within six years.


There are many things colleges can do to address these conflicts so the students can stay in school:

  • Facilitate FAFSA completion by providing one-on-one assistance. If more students apply for financial aid, they may be able to work less. Reducing work hours will contribute to better grades.
  • Teach time management skills. This will help students get organized and multitask, so that they don't miss deadlines or have to cut classes.
  • Establish on-campus childcare facilities for students, not just faculty and staff. Provide referrals to high quality local daycare facilities and emergency drop-in daycare centers. This will help students with children, especially students who are single parents, to worry less about their children.
  • Establish services and facilities for commuter students, such as lockers, lounges and quiet study areas. This can be their home away from home, where they can immerse themselves in the campus community.


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