The 5 ways colleges can reverse trend of students stopping out

Institutions must not only find new ways to meet their financial needs but also build relationships with them.
By: | December 10, 2021
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Senior administrators ranked persistence and retention as the No. 1 priority in supporting higher education students in a study conducted by American University and the Association of American Colleges and Universities this past spring.

They understand well the challenges facing those who attend their institutions, including the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. But there are a number of other reasons why students are electing to walk away from their colleges, effectively leaving credits on the table and abandoning their dreams of completion.

The nonprofit University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and online education provider StraighterLine recently released a report that shows that students not only are disengaging because of financial reasons and family commitments, but some are stopping out because they are dissatisfied with higher education altogether. For Gen Z students who stop out, those numbers are high, at 43%.

“Given the pandemic and the evolution of a new economy, one that relies on automation and information, students will be more likely to disengage with higher education for a variety of reasons,” said Jim Fong, Chief Research Officer and Director of the Center for Research and Strategy at UPCEA. “Families are more financially fragile and students have greater challenges. If we don’t act or anticipate this, they’ll not only disengage, but they will become disenfranchised with higher education.”

More than 1,000 students completed the study, Today’s Disengaged Learner is Tomorrow’s Adult Learner, in which the two organizations highlighted the rationale for enrollments and stop-outs and the lack of re-engagement. They also offered key strategies institutions can take to get them back.

“So many people start college and never finish,” StraighterLine Chief Learning Officer Amy Smith said. “What we see from our research is Gen Z and Millennials leave school for different reasons, but the reason they return is the same — to reach a personal goal, and 62% of them want to finish it. So they never left that original vision of who they were going to be. That’s huge.”

Inside the numbers

While 42% of those surveyed said they exited higher education because of financial constraints (numbers were higher among older students) and 30% cited family needs, 30% simply indicated that the institution was “not the right fit for me.” About a quarter also indicated they didn’t have time for school because they were working or caregiving. Among the youngest students (18-19), an alarming 26% left because of dissatisfaction.

“Not surprisingly, family commitments were very important to mid-Millennials,” Smith said. “Many are working parents who had to make the choice between going to school or providing for their family. Gen Z, on the other hand, cares more about a school being the right fit for them, and they are willing to pay for it.”

A stunning 90% of students have not reengaged with their institution since they left, and reasons run the gamut, from time and commitment to work and careers to COVID-19. But a combined 40% said they aren’t interested or have issues or negative attitudes toward their college or university. Simply put, the authors noted, “the majority of students did not feel strongly engaged with their institution during their time in higher education.”

“Keeping your students happy matters,” Smith said. “How you left the school, satisfied or upset, that impacted whether or not you went back to that original school.”

Getting students back

Institutions interested in gaining students back should know that younger students are far more likely to return than older students, according to the study. Authors noted there are many motivations that could bring them back, but the No. 1 for them is helping to achieve personal goals, followed by career advancement (44%), love of learning (42%) and boosting salary (40%).

Students cited five ways institutions could have helped them during their time in school that may have kept them on those paths to completion. Those strategies can be key to retaining or re-engaging in the future, according to UPCEA and StraighterLine:

  1. Offer certificates for credits students have earned
  2. Lower financial burdens by reducing course costs
  3. Provide workshops to help students overcome personal setbacks
  4. Offer more robust counseling
  5. Step up concierge services

“It is imperative that institutions cultivate meaningful connections to their students from the moment they enter the enrollment funnel. Life happens, students disengage,” said Fong. “In this increasingly competitive marketplace, it is essential that institutions have an established relationship and tactics of engagement with their disengaged learners to bring them back into the fold.”

Gender is something institutions should consider when assisting students or trying to re-engage them. Women are far more likely to stop out than men.

“Men and women do not see higher education the same way. You can’t get men and women to re-engage in higher education using the same messaging and tactics,” Smith said.

Finding a way to offer more financial assistance is imperative.

“The majority of disengaged learners are working adults that make $50,000 or less, so they are working on pretty tight budgets,” said Smith. “This is a significant factor that colleges and universities need to think about when re-engaging students.”