3 data-fueled ways to boost retention by improving student experience

Colleges and universities are trying to re-recruit previous students while simultaneously targeting new students,
By: and | August 12, 2021

As both two-year and four-year institutions respond to reduced enrollments post-pandemic, they are faced with the challenge of recruiting and retaining students based on a new set of academic, financial and social dynamics.

Colleges and universities are trying to re-recruit previous students while simultaneously targeting new students, meeting updated needs and addressing different reasons why students may now be considering higher education.

The bottom line is there is less room for error in student retention—particularly for community colleges and smaller private institutions stretched thin. Administrators are even more focused on where to invest time and scarce resources.

However, flexibility is vital for trying new programs and introducing new courses with less risk, as it allows institutional leaders to adapt as they go based on student interest and demand while maintaining strong academic programs and efficient operations.

To strike a balance between predictability and flexibility, institutions must use data that already exists across campus to support student needs in aggregate and provide new ways for it to support decision making. This may include identifying which courses or set of courses are the most beneficial to students and the institution, and which are underperforming with low margins or lower than expected learning outcomes, or which types of majors are in higher demand.

That information can be used to collaboratively engage faculty and staff to consider improvements or make other adjustments as the data now includes much more than student feedback. While modifying courses and curriculum is not new, these types of data-focused insights can help speed up the process by highlighting where to focus more energy.

JD White

JD White

Institutions can benefit from implementing the following data-fueled best practices to continuously evolve and improve the overall student experience for recruitment and retention gains.

Structure intentional student experiences

Are institutions viewing the student journey through a lens that enables administrators to intentionally curate opportunities based on individual student needs, backgrounds and previous experiences?

This approach yields a more personalized student experience, which helps encourage retention and success.

Mirko Widenhorn

Mirko Widenhorn

Bringing together data across the institution can remove the hurdles to explore previously unknown connections for students and help them identify relevant pathways to follow. A key element is the ability to show how experiences intersect with both an academic path and a career development path.

By helping students understand these paths, institutions are better preparing them for life after graduation. The potential paths for any given student can be identified based on information from other students and the current environment—making decisions easier from the student perspective as they select courses, co-curricular activities, and much more.

Institutions should also consider advanced analytics to leverage data from across the institution in predictive modeling to provide more insights to advisors and others about a student’s level of risk of leaving the institution prior to graduation. Examining key points throughout the student lifecycle can help indicate which students are actively engaged on campus, doing well academically, and have a social network, as well as students who are struggling to find their way.

Through a combination of analytics and guided paths, institutions can help students succeed. Using that information can also help with overall institutional goals based on historical trends and the demands of today’s job market.

Examine learning outcomes & operations

Imagine if an institution could compare course evaluation data, enrollment trends for courses and sections, learning outcomes achievement and more to see where adjustments could help students and the institution.

Sound far-fetched? It’s actually data that exists today–the challenge is bringing that data together in meaningful ways. Often information like this sits in silos, but it doesn’t need to.

Bringing course and learning outcomes information together with program cost and faculty allocation data can help identify potential adjustments to improve the student experience as well as reduce academic costs.

By examining these types of data intersections, institutions can also glean insights about which courses are the most or least profitable, which receive the highest or lowest ratings from students, and other key aspects of the academic student experience that can help better inform adjustments to academic offerings by changing course caps, adjusting aspects of the course curriculum, and more.

Keep innovating with data to drive strategies

As institutions look to evolve their approaches to recruitment, academic delivery and overall engagement post-pandemic, it is clear that continuous innovation is a must. Of course, this involves some risk, which is even more acute in a challenging budget climate.

However, as many institutions are now on the edge of financial viability, there is often less tolerance for untested strategies and risk. Here, data can introduce more predictability into the process as well as new ideas for smaller yet impactful pivots.

For example, an institution trying to re-recruit students who didn’t register for the next semester would be better served by pulling in student engagement data to identify students who are less likely to re-enroll, as this segment of students are likely not as involved on campus but would benefit from receiving more time investment from administrators.

Being able to quickly analyze this type of individualized data at scale can help institutions confidently move the needle without requiring radical change—thus improving the overall academic student experience—and driving stronger retention in this new higher ed environment.

As institutions navigate the next steps of engaging students post-pandemic, analyzing different combinations of existing data sets across the institution can help identify valuable insights that will enable institutions to determine top priority areas to focus on to foster a better overall student experience.

JD White is chief product officer and Mirko Widenhorn is senior director of engagement strategy at Anthology, a higher education solutions provider.