Disrupt student retention strategies now to COVID-proof the future

Create a continuum of communication across campus to COVID-proof retention, say one university's vice chancellor for marketing and communications and a strategic planning consultant.

COVID-19 upended traditional recruitment strategies. Campus visits and in-person connections made while traveling are no longer go-to options on which to rely. On the heels of mitigating melt almost exclusively online, the focus must shift to virtual-only recruitment strategies, which has never before been attempted this fall.

Renea Morris, University of Denver
Renea Morris, University of Denver

A reputation takes years to build and sometimes moments to dismantle. It will take significant time, talent and energy into a set of never-attempted strategies to create the outcomes needed to succeed. Every year, the recruitment calendar operates the same—nurture, recruit, yield and enroll. Repeat. The transition from recruit to commitment is a relay that involves strong baton passes from admissions to the registrar, then over to student affairs. Once a student begins jumping those hurdles, admissions is on to the next cycle, and other campus units are charged with delivering a high-value student experience.

The multiplier effect of student turnover

The student experience has been defined by a mix of campus-based activities, off-campus happenings, and virtual events. Shared experiences and campus rituals create the connective tissue that sustains students emotionally, mentally and relationally. Those touchpoints have been altered or eliminated and replaced with a less satisfying virtual reality. When the value proposition isn’t evident in these online alternatives, other choices become more attractive.

Closing the gap between dreams and realities is essential to minimize the cost of student turnover. Examples of student turnover include taking a gap year, enrolling in a less expensive alternative, or pursuing a degree closer to home. The multiplier effect is significant as colleges face decreases to top-line revenue and bottom-line financial results over consecutive terms and academic years.

Knowing that it can cost up to five times—potentially even more with COVID—to acquire a new student than retain an existing one, universities must find ways to optimize the experience of their new students over the long haul to ensure they persist.

Create an indelible retention strategy

Rather than handing off new students to others once they come to campus, universities must find ways to nurture those student relationships to help them withstand the rigors of college life. To do this effectively, consider cross-training existing resources in admissions and student affairs departments to ensure a seamless transition rather than an abrupt change for incoming students.

Beginning in their first year, there are other ways to help students progress and persist. For example, the value of a student’s education is often seen through the efficacy of career services. Rather than preparing for 50 percent of college seniors to make use of those services, push the envelope to include the entire student body. An example of where this is working for more than 70 percent of students is the Burwell Center for Career Achievement at the University of Denver. DU’s staff collaborates across the campus to ensure students are engaged throughout their entire academic career. An advisory board comprised of faculty discuss every quarter what is working for students to ensure it remains relevant and accessible for all.

Galvanize engagement 

Colleges are in unique positions to get to know their students well before they ever decide to enroll. Once a student commits, there’s often an abrupt and not always well-executed transition from admissions to student affairs, and that knowledge of the student is lost in the handoff. Students feel that loss of connection firsthand. By extending the recruiting relationship into college, there’s an opportunity to galvanize student engagement and better support persistence.

Karla Raines, Differentiation Zone
Karla Raines, Differentiation Zone

Recruiting well outweighs the cost of retention. By walking alongside new students throughout their entire life cycle and beyond, not only will their experience live up to the recruitment pitch, but they also will become loyal ambassadors for the college’s brand. Newly minted students need nurturing to ensure they persist in college and land on strong footing after graduation. Extending the connection for young alums will create a culture of ardent supporters long-term.

Renea Morris is vice chancellor for marketing and communications at the University of Denver. A seasoned higher ed marketer, Renea’s background includes nonprofits and corporations. Karla Raines is a master strategist advising colleges and nonprofits. Her innovative strategic planning approach is attuned to the times.

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