Do you have a campus retention champion?

Institutions need an administrator to drive persistence initiatives and rally support

Student retention, persistence, success and graduation remain top-of-mind issues for higher ed leaders amidst the advent of the College Scorecard, the push toward 60 percent of high school graduates earning college degrees by 2020, and families’ familiar concerns about return on investment.

Lower-than-desired retention and graduation rates are not limited by an institution’s size, sector, tier or financial health. While campus-specific solutions will be necessary, there are tried-and-true practices that can advance “talk” into action.

Foundation for success

The first step in improving retention and graduation rates is to identify the “champion.” This person, who is charged with making retention a campus priority, commands the respect and trust of student affairs professionals and academic leaders to foster greater collaboration.

For the champion to succeed, retention efforts need to be centrally sponsored, but owned by each academic division. Many campuses have a variety of people involved in retention—from enrollment management to student affairs and academic affairs—but no deliberate vehicle to guarantee integration of ideas and action. This lack of synergy minimizes the impact of the time, energy and resources committed.

An effective retention campaign also needs to work cross-divisionally, engaging every corner of the campus. This means that the retention champion should report directly to the president and provost. Otherwise, the retention champion will not have sufficient reach to impact every level of the institution.

The retention champion not only provides organizational leadership, but is also the main force for ensuring that retention initiatives are founded on data analysis. Too often, retention efforts are turned sideways by well-meaning, but anecdotally driven staff and faculty.

In these situations, considerable time, energy and resources are dedicated to activities that sound nice and feel good but don’t address core challenges. This is extremely counterproductive, because it depletes the institution’s interest and energy to address real retention problems. Remember: The plural of anecdote is not data.

Ideally, solutions can be “triangulated” by combining internal data (grades, co-curricular involvement, course sequences, unmet need, housing, on-campus employment) with external data (National Student Clearinghouse results, SSI and NSSE surveys, and institutional retention and graduation rates).

Even when institutions conduct cohort analysis on retention data, too often the analysis is episodic and not sustained, making it difficult to track longitudinal trends. And then, if institutions take action based on the analytics, many do not rigorously evaluate the impact their initiatives have had on persistence and graduation.

In a resource-­­­constrained environment, which describes most of higher education today, it’s critical to prove that the investment in a given set of retention initiatives truly represents the most effective use of institutional resources. These matrices of success will call for both formative and summative evaluation.

For example, are these the right initiatives for your institution and are you executing them so that the bottom line results demonstrate a positive difference that is measurable?

Strategic actions that work

With your foundation in place, you can begin to explore the following strategic actions that will help guarantee success for your retention program:

  • Implement an early-warning system. Especially important and critical for new freshmen. Early ­­­­doesn’t mean midterm, early means in the first ­­two or three weeks of the semester. Seek out any and every signal that a student may be struggling or is unconnected. This includes attendance, poor quiz performance and incomplete homework assignments. However, it is not good enough to just identify potential at-risk students, a follow-up plan needs to be in place. This will require that the follow-up team has been identified and is positioned to take action. Motivational assessment tools and predictive modeling can provide information about who’s likely to struggle even before the student starts having difficulty. Support needs to come early and often.
  • Help students find their “academic home” and begin building relationships there. Cocurricular opportunities or social events around majors can be rational and non-threatening venues to begin to build student-faculty relationships. Because freshmen often take a heavy dose of general education courses, there needs to be a deliberate and intentional outreach from the department of their major. Clearly, undecided or undeclared students are in a very different situation that requires a different solution.
  • Involve parents. Again, especially with freshmen, it is important to communicate directly with parents on a routine basis. Admissions staff know parent communication is important in recruitment. Early on it’s important to tell parents what freshmen are experiencing and what resources are available. Parents are an asset to be leveraged in retention planning and execution.
  • Ensure student support services are accessible and easy to navigate. Avoid duplication of services and redundancies. They just confuse. Also, reduce or eliminate gaps in services. Merely providing services is not good enough. It is important that students—especially freshman—know when, how and why they should take advantage of those services. Services should not merely be announced—a compelling and convincing case for their value and benefits must be made. Do not assume those values and benefits are obvious. Be deliberate and intentional. While a best practice is to have a virtual, one-stop shop equipped with a full array of online self-service options, some services are best provided face-to-face. Consequently, front line staff (registrar, financial aid, student accounts, advising, etc.) need to be well integrated and cross-trained.
  • Create opportunities for students to connect with students, especially freshmen. Employ peer advisors in required freshman courses. Encourage or require group work in freshman classes to help new students get connected. This can be especially important for commuter populations that don’t have the built-in dormitory opportunities for connecting.
  • Let data lead the way. Invest in opportunities that are supported by empirical analysis. Develop a culture of evidence. For example, don’t rush to award upperclassmen additional gift aid because they have been academically successful unless you’ve got evidence that those students are leaving your institution disproportionately once they’ve succeeded. Conversely, on-campus employment correlates highly with retention. Invest in additional campus jobs, not gift aid. Segment classes by subpopulations to understand retention differences, compared to the class as a whole. You could even use predictive modeling to understand specific student characters correlated to retention and attrition. This analysis could help identify high D, F and W courses or difficult course combinations. With that knowledge in hand, intervention strategies—such as supplemental instruction and preregistration advising—can be introduced.
  • It’s not just about freshmen. Don’t forget about sophomores and beyond. Many institutions have extensive services and programs targeted at incoming students, but almost nothing for students entering later years at the institution. Sophomores face different challenges than freshmen. They may need to change a major, having realized they will not be successful in their initial choice. Or they may be having difficulty choosing a major. Again, analyzing the factors that impact retention from first-to-second year can help ensure that your intervention efforts are well targeted.

To conclude, a retention champion is a team builder—not a one-person show—who uses data to drive decisions. The culture of evidence is what keeps all initiatives on task so that a real difference can be made.

James Scannell is president and Jennifer Wick is vice president of Scannell & Kurz, a higher education enrollment consulting division of Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

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