With colleges under public scrutiny for rising tuition costs, one of the clearest statistical indicators that students feel they’re getting real value from their college experience is the retention rate. While data show that retention rates are, as least to some extent, preordained by the demographics of an incoming class, understanding how retention rates can be influenced systematically not only by admissions, but also by offices throughout the campus, can improve student persistence at an institution.
Ten years ago, when Victor Boschini, Jr., became chancellor of Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, he began to ask people in his administration about the college’s key benchmarks. Among those numbers, he was particularly interested in the retention rate at the institution, a private college with about 8,500 undergraduates. Mike Scott, TCU’s director of scholarships and financial aid, admits that question came as a surprise. “The truth was that nobody had paid much attention to it,” he recalls. “But when we started to do some research, we learned that we were at 82 percent: dead-solid average compared to our peer institutions.”
But deeper research suggested that “average” was anything but. Given the attributes of the students that TCU was admitting, formulas suggested that the college should have been doing better than average. Instead, TCU was underperforming.
That disappointing number proved to be a catalyst for a campus-wide effort to understand and improve the college’s retention rate. From admissions to financial aid to faculty to student affairs, offices tweaked processes, built new programs, and re-evaluated long-used systems. They dug deep into the data and conducted focus groups to pinpoint significant but little-known problems.
The results speak for themselves. In the past decade, retention climbed not only to the college’s original target of 88 percent, but above it, to 90 percent. During the recession, when other colleges experienced significant declines in retention, TCU’s held steady.
These days, many colleges are taking a much closer look at their retention rates, and it makes good sense to do so. According to the most recent statistics compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly three out of every 10 first-time, full-time degree-seeking undergraduates don’t return to a given institution for a second year. And while the most highly selective colleges can boast of retention rates of more than 95 percent, they are the exception, rather than the rule.
There’s no question that colleges invest heavily to get students to enroll: an average four-year, private liberal arts college spends more than $2,000 to get a single student into a seat on the first day of class, according to statistics compiled by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). When students leave, colleges lose not just that initial investment, but also tens of thousands of dollars in future potential revenue. Moreover, at least one state government—California—is considering linking state funding for colleges to measures such as graduation rates, which are connected to retention.
But the importance of retention rates goes beyond dollars and cents. Retention is an important factor in the formulas that publications use to provide college rankings. Bad word of mouth from departing students can prevent friends and family members from considering the college, and poor retention numbers can even have a negative impact on institutional brand equity. And of course, every student who leaves represents a lost opportunity for the college to produce a graduate who succeeds and reflects well on it as an alumnus.
By framing the problem as one that can be addressed systematically—from the moment a student receives a brochure as a high school student to the day he or she arrives on campus to start the sophomore year—colleges can ensure they’re doing everything possible to allow students to thrive and stay at their institutions.
Help Students Deeply Understand Your College
While it may seem counterintuitive, the process of improving retention rates begins well before a prospective student has even decided to apply; it begins the moment he or she receives admissions materials.
The promises that colleges make to prospective students in admissions materials are not always explicit, but they’re embedded in every photo, caption, and poetic description of campus life and classes. And students internalize those ideas as they move from prospective student to admitted student to enrolled student. However, when asked later, they sometimes say that their college experience falls short of what those materials seemed to offer. According to a 2012 “Your First College Year Survey” by HERI’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), a fifth of students report that admissions materials don’t accurately portray the campus, and those who felt that this was the case were less likely to return to the college the following year.
While admissions materials should always put the college’s best foot forward, they shouldn’t veer into hyperbole. Helping students understand the unique value that the college can bring to them makes a difference. While many colleges may strive to raise their average test scores, woo National Merit Scholars, or highlight big awards, those are relatively minor details, says Lisa Bortman, assistant provost for institutional effectiveness at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Instead of trying to showcase a Harvard-like experience if you don’t have Harvard-like resources or selectivity, help prospective students get the full picture of what your college does have—perhaps specific strong academic programs, great traditions, a popular athletic team, or a unique off-campus opportunity. “Instead of trying to be—and present yourself as—a lead institution, you need to think about what your mission is and find students who are best matched to that,” Bortman says.
Indeed, part of the prospective student education process is helping students understand the college that you’re not. At Spelman College in Atlanta, for example, students typically know from the start that they’ll be part of a historically black institution for women. But even more than that, they need to be prepared for a broad liberal arts education, says vice president for enrollment management Arlene Cash. “If they want to go into journalism, business, or architecture, we have to be very clear: we don’t have professional colleges within our college. We have ways that you can get there, through internships and exchange programs, but there aren’t those specific majors at the college,” she says. “When colleges [suggest that the path is easier than it is], it just brings students in who overall are not going to be satisfied. That doesn’t benefit anyone.” Highlighting programs, research opportunities, and internships that are uncommon or rarely used isn’t just deceptive, but counterproductive.
While the most important elements of colleges remain relatively constant over time, colleges also change in small but important ways as new students arrive, technology shifts, and generational interests change. To capture these subtle nuances for prospective students, Ann Larson, director of admission at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, requires all of her staff to attend new student orientation each year. “I want them to go to all of the sessions so that we can see how that university picks up [the students] when we hand them off,” she says. “When we see the full picture, we can be the best representatives of the college when we go back out on the road.”
The next step is to help students who are serious about the college make a campus visit a top priority. Admissions materials may be a great way to introduce your college, but just as books and websites about travel can’t replicate actually getting on a plane and going somewhere, your viewbooks and admissions materials can’t duplicate actually stepping onto the quad, sitting in on a class, or staying overnight in a residence hall. According to John Pryor, the director of CIRP, analysis of CIRP data has found that students who say that a campus visit was an important component in their decision to attend a college are more likely to stick around.
But how can colleges get more students to take advantage of campus visits? The University of Dayton (Ohio) has come up with a range of unique incentives, including up to $4,000 in free textbooks ($500 per semester) for accepted students who have visited the campus and filled out a FAFSA form by March 15. According to Sundar Kumarasamy, the university’s vice president for enrollment management and marketing, it’s an attractive enough offer to entice students to visit and find a fit—and also a way for admissions officers to get an indication of the seriousness of the students’ interest. Students, meanwhile, benefit in more than just financial ways. “Visiting the campus allows students to make a logical and experience-based decision, rather than a more arbitrary decision based on a financial aid award or something else,” Kumarasamy says.
Admit the Right Students
Too often, colleges place the burden of retention on student affairs staff, focusing significant resources on at-risk students. Yet if that’s the first time you start to think seriously about retention, you’ve already lost the game, says David Kalsbeek, senior vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University (Illinois) and author of Reframing Retention Strategy for Institutional Improvement. “When the starting premise is that there’s nothing you can do about [who’s admitted] and therefore your task is to do the best you can with the hand you’re dealt, you’ve immediately cut off a whole range of really important strategies,” he says.
In fact, admissions is one of the best places to suss out which students are likely to thrive at your college. While some insist that the answer is seeking ever-brainier students, evidence suggests that high ACT or SAT scores have little correlation with student retention.
Instead, admissions officers should consider weighting stronger predictors of student success more heavily. At DePaul, for example, they found that high school grades were a good predictor of long-term academic success, as was a student’s participation in and completion of an International Baccalaureate (IB) program. And while they had noticed that link for some time, last year the college began pilot-testing a test-optional alternative for freshman admission that does not require students to submit their ACT or SAT scores, but instead focuses on high school grades, special programs such as IB, recommendations, extracurriculars, and short essays.
These and other changes have been part of a broader strategy that DePaul has used to improve retention. Since 1992, DePaul has steadily improved its retention rate from 77.1 percent to 85.2 percent.
For colleges willing to sift through the data, there may be other ways to capitalize on opportunities. James Roche, associate provost for enrollment management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, found in his research that students who apply earlier in the admissions cycle are more likely to perform better in the classroom and persist at the college compared to those students with similar scores and grades who applied later. “The academic qualifications applicants bring play an important role in their success,” he wrote in a blog post for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “but the point in the admissions cycle when they submit their application provides an additional layer of insight.”
The lessons from these examples are clear, says Kalsbeek. “We’re not just saying, ‘Let’s get better students.’ We’re saying, ‘What criteria can we consider in shaping the profile of the students who walk in the door that increases the likelihood that they will succeed?’ ”
To be sure, there are potential tradeoffs to this approach. Because many of the predictors of retention (such as strong academic credentials and higher levels of parental degree attainment, as HERI has found) tend to correlate with family income and wealth, colleges seeking to improve their retention must balance those goals with their desire for equality of access for all students.
When students commit significant time and money to an institution, they want to know that they’re more than just a number. And the more they feel connected to an institution, the more likely they are to stay. Yet colleges often don’t look for opportunities to build that connection in their regular communications.
At Pepperdine, for example, student advisory services staff commit to calling every single student who doesn’t enroll for the upcoming semester’s classes. This so-called “intrusive advising” might sound like a bit much—but it’s effective, and students are often grateful for it, says Pepperdine’s Bortman. “Sometimes, [the barrier holding them back] may just be a small amount of money, and they didn’t know who to talk to about it. With a phone call, we can connect them with financial aid and get the issue resolved.”
At TCU, they’ve used the same framework of personalization in other ways as they help students navigate academic challenges, financial aid, or even roommate troubles. “We try, at all costs, to avoid telling a student that they should call a specific office or see this person—instead, we say, ‘Can I have your permission to have this person contact you?” Scott says. “It really makes a difference.”
While some would argue that these students are old enough to motivate themselves to do simple but important tasks, Scott is realistic about where they are in their lives. Six months earlier, he says, they were likely asking their high school teachers for permission simply to go to the bathroom; to send them to college with a sink or swim approach isn’t just ineffective, it’s unfair. Moreover, the responses he gets back from students—often expressing surprise and gratitude that the college took the time to check in with them—indicates that meeting them more than halfway truly improves their experience at the college.
W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, communication, and planning at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, says that at his college, they don’t just take a personal approach, they take a proactive one. Although many students need a nudge early on in their college careers, either academically or personally, he looks for red flags before they become real problems. He looks at student files for potential issues ranging from mental health issues to academic concerns and creates plans with others on campus, from coaches to deans. Students who enroll at the college having participated in few extracurricular activities, for example, may be at risk for failing to engage at the college, so Barnds might check in with the director of residential life to have a residential advisor knock on the student’s door during the first week of college to encourage them to visit the activities fair. The goal is to prevent problems, rather than react to them. “They’re subtle interventions,” says Barnds. “We like to individualize outreach whenever we can.”
Pull In Support
One common misperception about students who leave a college before their second year is that they simply can’t hack it academically. Scott says that at his institution, many faculty members didn’t embrace improving retention rates for that reason alone. “Their initial reaction was, ‘Why do you want us to keep the ones who shouldn’t have been here in the first place?’ ”
However, when a TCU economics professor studied the data, she found that a large number of students who were leaving weren’t struggling with classes at all. Scott says, “She started showing [other faculty members] data on the significant percentage of students who had a 3.5 GPA and higher who were leaving, and that changed the conversation from ‘I don’t want them in my classroom,’ to ‘I would love to have them in my classroom, why did I lose them?’ ” By turning the conversation around, faculty have been more likely to respond when the provost asks if they’ve noticed students who seem to be struggling or unhappy, Scott reports.
Even parents can serve as helpful partners in the retention process, says Spelman’s Cash. Parents are invited to portions of new student orientation at Spelman, and while they’re there, staff caution them that their daughter may feel lonely and overwhelmed at first. Though a parent’s first impulse may be to protect their child and let her return home, staff members encourage parents to let her tough it out for awhile. When parents are prepared for those early and difficult calls home, they can more appropriately guide them to stay the course and get through the difficult transition to college.
Show and Deliver Real Value
There’s no question that college costs are on every parent’s (if not every student’s) mind, and one of the most frequent reasons that students cite for leaving a college is high costs. Yet in many cases, “cost” is a catch-all term for a more nuanced cost-value equation. Indeed, a case study done for one college by the college coaching service InsideTrack found that, regardless of what they reported in exit interviews, just 5 percent of exiting students left as a result of legitimate financial hardship, and many of those who cited affordability as their primary reason for leaving chose to enroll later at a similarly priced college. In other words, the solution may not lie simply in bolstering your financial aid packages.
Transparency may help. The University of Dayton, for example, recently rolled out an ambitious locked-in net tuition plan—a clear and comprehensive package that provides the bottom-line price of four years at the college, with no hidden fees and complete details on grant aid and financing options. And while the numbers might seem a bit breathtaking at first, Kumarasamy ultimately believes that this upfront honesty will be more reassuring than the constant worries that costs will escalate or hidden fees will surface to add another layer of stress and uncertainty.
But more than simply looking at costs, you must show real value by delivering the experience that is explicitly or implicitly promised by your college’s brand—which may or may not be linked to your college’s mission statement.
Kalsbeek, for example, says that while his college delivers a fantastic education and has a strong Catholic mission, he knows that students are first attracted to its location in the heart of Chicago. In fact, students typically decide first that they’d like to attend college in Chicago and only later arrive at a decision to try out DePaul. “I want them to be satisfied with all the programs that actively engage them in the urban wonder that is Chicago,” he says. “I want that to be what they’re sharing with all their friends around the country, in their tweets and their Facebook pages, because I know that that’s the core of the brand.”
As colleges come under increasing scrutiny for rising costs, putting renewed focus on retention rates—one of the clearest indicators that students feel that they are getting real value from the experience and education your college provides—is essential. Improving retention rates may be a challenging process, but it ultimately benefits colleges, students, and society, says Pryor. “It’s not easy, and you’re not going to go from, say, a 23 percent retention rate to a 65 percent retention rate with a single, magic program,” he says. “But with a [long-term] process, colleges can make a positive change.”
Sidebar: Leave and Learn
No matter how strong your retention strategy is, there will always be students who leave. But before they head off campus, you should consider conducting exit interviews to find out if there’s something you could have done differently to retain them. Exit interviews can help you gain insights to better shape the experiences of future students.
We asked about the best practices of colleges who do exit interviews to find out how to get honest information—and how best to use it.
- Recognize that students are leery of exit interviews. Don’t be surprised if students are tight-lipped about their reasons, no matter how legitimate, says Lisa Bortman, assistant provost for institutional effectiveness at Pepperdine University (California). “They don’t want to talk about it, because they worry you might try to talk them into staying,” she says.
- Probe more deeply if the reason for leaving has a financial component. Over their many years of exit interviews, W. Kent Barnds, vice president of admissions at Augustana College (Illinois), says his staff has discovered that “affordability” is an easy—and often inaccurate—excuse, so they try to dig deeper. “Our exit interviewer will often ask if the student met with financial aid [officers], or what amount of additional aid might have kept the student enrolled,” he says. These questions, he says, often reveal a different reason for leaving than the one the student initially suggested.
- Word your questions thoughtfully. Good questions with a smart approach can elicit thoughtful answers, says Bortman. “We ask students, ‘If we had a second chance at this, what could we have done so you would have stayed at the institution?’ ” That wording can help uncover the real issue, whether they felt academically adrift, despised a roommate, or clashed with a faculty member.
- Consider using a third-party resource to administer surveys. Students may be reluctant to provide honest feedback about a college when they’re talking to one of the college’s employees. An outside firm may provide a sense of distance and confidentiality that allows students to be honest about their reasons for leaving.
- Consider looking beyond students. Barnds says he knows of at least one college that has called parents of some departing students. “They called to get the real scoop, and I think that could be revealing,” he says. “They’re probably better sources of accurate information.”
- Look for patterns. Students have individual stories, but you’ll see themes emerge, and they’re worth tracking and understanding, says Barnds. “We categorize reasons into a few areas—academic, personal, health, bad fit, financial,” he says. Frequently cited issues can reveal areas worth pursuing more vigorously.
- Get broader information from CIRP data. For colleges with relatively large populations, trying to conduct a significant number of exit interviews can be daunting. However, colleges can still access helpful data from the “Your First College Year Survey,” which collects information from students who have left to find out more about why they left, what they’re doing now, and what they plan to do in the fall, says CIRP’s director, John Pryor. While this information may not be as targeted, it can still provide guidance for colleges looking to make changes.