Quick, practical actions for supporting students

5 moves for reducing student attrition from EAB's Student Success Playbook

One need not dig deep into higher education realities to find that student dropouts are causing college leaders to face reputational and financial challenges. Nearly one-third of students drop out of college before beginning their second year, and that hurts the bottom line as much as it does educators’ hearts.

While there’s hardly a shortage of ideas to work on the problem–and many institutions have been successful in improving retention and completion—the overall belief is that truly moving the needle would involve “massive, expensive and disruptive institutional changes,” says Ed Venit, managing director of EAB. The education firm—which offers research, technology and services related to enrollment management, student success and institutional operations and strategy—has released The Student Success Playbook with 14 recommendations for improving student outcomes and ensuring financial stability.

Some of those recommendations involve taking fast, practical actions that can result in meaningful improvements.

Retention and completion efforts to implement

Removing registration obstacles is one action that is relatively easy and effective. The report advises auditing the registration process to remove or mitigate logistical and financial barriers that prevent students from reenrolling. That involves adopting a mindset similar to other “renewal businesses,” such as health clubs and insurance companies, that constantly strive to make it easier for clients to continue working with them.

“Many senior campus leaders are surprised when they start uncovering the various barriers to registration faced by their students,” says Venit. “These barriers are often transactional in nature—bursar balances, library fines, parking tickets, housing forms—and are counterproductive to the overall financial health of the institution.” First-generation students who are unfamiliar with higher education policies are especially impacted by such hurdles.

“So few cabinets have taken a look at this,” says Venit, adding that this baffles he and his colleagues but is slowly starting to change.

To start he advises conducting an audit of bursar holds, which compel students to pay off small balances or complete paperwork or other administrative tasks before being allowed to register. “This is relatively straightforward on most campuses and could reveal some quick systemic changes that could make it much easier for students to navigate your bureaucracy,” Venit says.

In terms of audit process, he says the most effective hold audits EAB has seen have included the CFO as central arbitrator of:

  • which fees and fines need to be collected, and
  • which can be overlooked for the sake of bringing the student back.

The playbook recommends looking at changing the threshold amount that triggers a financial hold as well as establishing emergency microgrant programs to help qualified students pay off small balances.

Also read: UB’s quiz on nontraditional college students (with 6 key questions to answer)


A few other ideas from EAB’s report on practical actions that should help get students to persist:

  • Send a personal note to students who haven’t registered. The note can ask if there’s anything the sender can do to help—encouraging students to share personal, financial or administrative obstacles that the school may be able to assist with.
  • Provide structured early guidance that builds momentum toward a degree. As many administrators now know firsthand, simply encouraging students to take enough credits each semester to graduate in four years—through “15 to Finish” types of campaigns—can make a big difference. Perhaps all freshmen could be required to declare a major (or a meta-major with broad academic area of interest identified).
  • Leverage technology to enable a more proactive approach to student advising. Advising office systems can proactively identify and contact students showing early indications of struggle.
  • Expand pre-enrollment programs to foster a sense of confidence and belonging. Summer programs introduce students to available support services and help students build connections with both peers and faculty.

Venit acknowledges that taking action to support students often requires investment in human capital, which can be difficult to attain. And effective pre-college programs are challenging because of a lack of many models. Yet providing such programs that are deep enough can “provide a true college simulation experience”—and schools can get closer to making a true impact on student retention and completion.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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