Stopping student stop-out: The latest data and how to address it

“Had to work” is the main reason students gave for pressing pause on their college education.

Amid the broader context of declining college enrollment, the increasing number of stop-out students is particularly concerning for institutions of all types.

The latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse suggests that a massive 39 million Americans have started college but not achieved a credential—a population of similar size to California or Canada. Worryingly, this number has grown by more than 5% since 2020.

The problem is complex, and solutions are both nuanced and multifaceted. Below are key insights that can help institutions begin to tackle stop-out challenges in a more systematic and scalable way.

Why do students stop out?

There is a long list of factors that can lead students not to continue with their degree. However, after working with colleges and universities of all sizes, our aggregated data indicates that “had to work” is the main reason why students press pause on their education.

Recent research and reports suggest that “had to work” can be comprised of various related challenges for students. Naturally, this includes financial challenges—which have grown because of the pandemic—and rising student concerns about the cost of college. But perhaps more troubling is that some students are questioning the value of higher education for their careers and choosing to fast-track their path into the workforce.

How can the stop-out trend be reversed?

Stop-out rates ultimately reflect the entire student experience—from teaching and learning to support and social factors—as well as personal factors that are beyond the institution’s control. Given the insights mentioned above, having financial aid and career support that is easily accessible for students of all backgrounds when they need that support is a fundamental step for any institution to build persistence.

For example, by augmenting its support and IT services to provide 24/7/365 access for students, the University of Central Oklahoma has made great strides in this area. Specifically, in one year, more than 53,000 incidents were managed between the IT Help Desk and One Stop with the average speed to answer reduced by 96% for IT and 93% for One Shop. As a result, student satisfaction dramatically increased, with the university’s leadership citing a significant decrease in complaints versus previous years and most critically driving a 1.5% retention rate.

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But no matter what systems you have in place, there will always be students at risk of stopping out. Therefore, it is essential to have processes to identify and engage these students if you wish to see meaningful growth in retention.

A data-led approach to identifying at-risk students

To regain control of managing student stop outs and get to the root of the problem, it is best to begin by looking at the data. An LMS is a great starting point. Understanding how students are progressing through their courses reveals how they’re performing academically and can often reflect challenges outside of the classroom.

But don’t stop there. Building a holistic picture of a student’s well-being requires examining and understanding the why behind the data—what are the specific challenges that could lead the student to leave an institution?

Utilizing data-driven assessment and analytics tools that combine robust student survey data with advanced visualization tools and predictive analytics gives institutions the ability to create a profile of student progress both in and outside the classroom. This enables advisors, faculty and staff to identify at-risk students and the reasons behind their high-risk profile and gives them the ability to become proactive in their outreach efforts.

Timely intervention is key to driving re-enrollment

The faster higher ed institutions can address a student’s challenges, the more likely they are to continue at the institution. However, this isn’t the only factor that can drive a positive outcome.

Multi-modal outreach is not only required but expected by students. Including digital channels such as text and email allows for efficient, mass outreach, and most students now prefer these means of communication. Lastly, employing aligned messages across various mediums will improve overall responsiveness. As an example, significantly improved engagement occurs when a text message precedes a phone call and when a phone call is followed by an email.

That said, the trusty telephone should remain at the core of the student outreach strategy, as data suggests that students are three times more likely to reenroll if they are engaged via phone. Leverage automated dialing technologies for efficiency and focus calling activity between 4-9 p.m. on weeknights for the best results. Of course, this is always a two-way street, and responding to students who contact individuals within each department within 24 hours is also imperative.

Most businesses recognize the steep cost of keeping customers vs. acquiring new ones and this is even more true in higher ed where students are the lifeline to the longevity of the institution. Using a data-driven approach to identifying and engaging with at-risk students and delivering more personalized touchpoints can be the catalyst for stopping the stop-outs.

Jason Smith
Jason Smith
Jason S. Smith is a former enrollment management professional with over 15 years of experience working in higher education and a long history of partnership with higher ed institutions. As Anthology's senior director of strategic services, he specializes in tackling institution enrollment and retention challenges.

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