When I worked for a university, I was deeply impressed with the resourcefulness of staff to do so much with an ever-shrinking budget. One gargantuan challenge we faced was improving student retention.
It goes without saying that students who are at the greatest risk of transferring or dropping out need more support services. But expanding class loads due to budget cuts leave faculty and staff with less time for one-on-one interaction with students. So the students slip away, along with their tuition.
And the downward spiral of budget cuts continues.
Later in my career, the best part of my job as a Marketing Specialist for AppointmentPlus was getting to talk with college deans, academic advisors, and IT professionals. Most college faculty and staff feel a strong sense of stewardship toward educating the next generation. Campuses of all sizes want to take proactive steps to improve retention. After all, any improvement in retention rates directly affects long-term institutional quality, reputation, and sustainability.
The drive is there. The resourcefulness is there. But the resources? Skimpier than ever. If your college or university is looking for new ways to improve the student retention rate and pull out of that downward spiral, these three tips can help:
Tip 1: Get everyone on board
College leadership often gets it right, correctly identifying the retention issue and charting a course in the right direction. They’ll start off like gangbusters, forming a taskforce, conducting a deep-dive into the problem, and developing an action plan.
That’s all well and good. But unless all staff and faculty row together — improving processes, communication with students, and other retention factors — nothing changes. The retention rate barely improves. The boat moves in circles.
For a student retention program to work, all faculty and staff have to take ownership of the solution:
- Academic advisors and faculty need to be proactive about identifying and meeting with at-risk students.
- Counselors and student advisors may need to prompt appointments, as students who are considering dropping out or transferring may not reach out.
- All staff may need to be trained in order to clearly understand the tools available and the techniques to identify at-risk students.
It’s important to note that staff can and should be rewarded for developing and employing best practices in improving student retention. It all works in concert to boost student morale, which boosts the retention rate.
Tip 2: Be accessible
The “traditional” college student is an archetype of the past. Today’s college students include working moms, newly arrived immigrants, and working professionals. When these students aren’t in class, chances are they’re extremely busy, especially during traditional business hours.
I used to call student advising centers around the U.S. to see what life was like for today’s students. Let me tell you — it’s not easy. Or convenient. In fact, it’s enough to push any already frustrated and overwhelmed student right over the edge.
The biggest problem is that most centers only take calls and answer emails during business hours. Restricting contact in that way is kind of like a freeway that’s under construction. When all four lanes are open, everyone can move along just fine. But when you close three of those lanes and force all that traffic into one lane, everything slows to a crawl.
When I was making my calls, I was competing against everyone else trying to get through during that eight-hour period. As a result, I came up against endless IVR loops and indefinite hold times. If you’ve got to squeeze in this phone call between client meetings or during baby’s nap time, sitting on hold isn’t an option, and you hang up.
Another big roadblock: When a student does make an advising appointment, there are rarely follow-up reminders. With so much going on, it’s not surprising that an appointment can be forgotten. A reminder text or email can make a huge difference. (We get reminders for every haircut and dental cleaning. Surely face-to-face time with a staff or faculty advisor is at least as important!)
Busy students should be able to schedule advising appointments (or tutoring appointments, or any other campus appointments) online, at any time of the day or night. At the very moment they’re freaking out and thinking about giving up. In an ideal world, they could tap directly into an advisor’s available appointment slots, saving everyone time. And automatic appointment reminders would ensure the meeting actually takes place.
That appointment getting scheduled and taking place are your only shot to intervene, and keep that student engaged.
Tip 3: Know your numbers
A northeastern U.S. college admissions director once confessed to me that 60% of his school’s enrollment consisted of incoming freshmen. With the average freshmen retention rate currently at about 75%, his school is hardly alone.
An IT staff professional from an Iowa community college ran an analysis that identified a sharp difference in retention between middle-and lower-income students. As a result, the college created a retention program that includes proactive advisement outreach specifically for the larger group of at-risk students from low-income backgrounds. Automatic appointment reminders are helping them ensure these students get the coaching they need. College skills workshops have also been incorporated into the program to help these students increase their success in the classroom.
New software systems crop up all the time that can manage and analyze student data in order to address retention issues. These products can greatly improve results once staff and faculty buy into change management.
A far less daunting overhaul that can still greatly improve advisement scheduling with both staff and faculty involves unifying the campus with a simple online scheduling system. It ties appointment, no-show, and other key data together without complex administration.
If left unchecked, poor student retention puts enormous strain on staff and resources. If your school has a student retention rate at or below 70%, now is the time to pull out all the stops.
Sure, keeping students engaged is a bigger challenge than ever. But there are also more tools available than ever to help you do it. The trick for any college or university is finding the tools that will both work and fit within that ever-shrinking budget. Appointment scheduling software implemented campus-wide is one of the few options out there that manages to do both.
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