A college degree holds transformative power for underrepresented and disadvantaged students. But for more and more individuals, this power is slipping out of reach, putting even greater pressure on institutions to develop effective college retention strategies.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment at US colleges and universities saw the largest year-over-year drop in a decade for the spring of 2021. Overall, enrollment declined by 3.5 percent. The decline was much steeper for community colleges in particular, however, with enrollment falling by 9.5 percent.

This is consistent with a report released by the College Board, which also found more drastic enrollment declines at two-year colleges. According to the report, the “pandemic most adversely affected the college trajectories of first-generation, underrepresented minority, and lower-achieving students from higher-poverty communities and high schools.” This indicates that those who have been hardest hit financially by the crisis have changed their college plans.

Left unchecked, this phenomenon will only lead to higher levels of inequality. Poverty rates are lower among groups with higher levels of educational attainment, and staying in college was already a challenge for underrepresented groups before the pandemic. The percentage of students attaining a two-year college degree within 150 percent of normal completion time has typically been the lowest for Hispanic students, American Indian/Alaska Native students, students of two or more races, and Black students.

With the recent plunge in enrollment rates, colleges will need to work even harder to retain the at-risk students who already have a foot out the door.

There are implications for everyone. Even people at the higher end of the wealth spectrum, for example, experience poorer health outcomes in rich countries where levels of inequality are very high. Clearly, we all stand to benefit from inclusive college retention strategies that promote greater learning equity.

Boosting Student Retention Isn’t Easy

college retention strategies

Many higher learning institutions tackle graduation rates holistically, focusing on both student persistence and retention by fostering a sense of community belonging and providing more avenues for students to access faculty, academic, and financial support.

Despite being a focus for many years, however, graduation rates at two-year colleges in the US remain low. Higher learning leaders face a myriad of challenges in allowing more students to earn a degree. Here are just a few of them:

#1. Online Learning. Online learning hasn’t fully delivered on its promise of opening doors for people of all backgrounds--yet. (More on that later.) Dropout rates are typically higher for distance learning courses than traditional face-to-face environments. Broken links, clunky interfaces, and a lack of connection with peers and faculty can contribute to a poor remote learning experience.

#2. Financial Aid. Cost is a significant barrier to getting a college degree. Yet, there is evidence that students who could be eligible for federal student aid (known as FAFSA in the US) just aren’t doing the necessary paperwork. And FAFSA applications experienced a sharp decline in 2021, consistent with the drop in enrollments overall.

#3. Campus Counseling Services. Research has shown that providing students with access to non-academic supports, like counseling, can help boost student success. But getting students actually to use these supports has been a challenge. Research published by Inside Higher Ed shows that few students are actually using campus counseling services.  

#4. Academic Advising Centers. This is a traditional method for helping students succeed through educational plans and connections to on-campus resources. However, students may decide to ignore this type of resource. At many colleges, they are usually only accessed during peak periods, like late registration.

Boosting Student Retention: Edtech as an Enabler

Here's the good news: Colleges don't necessarily have to start from scratch when designing effective student retention strategies. Edtech can turbocharge existing practices, helping colleges deliver more equitable education that meets the needs of diverse learners.

Digital textbooks, for example, can help libraries deliver course content to students conveniently and equitably. Using BibliU’s On-Demand Learning model, Allan Hancock College library reserves are no longer restricted to the print donations they receive from faculty and students. While the library offers a robust print textbook collection, it can now provide digital reserves at no cost to the students, alleviating any financial pressure about purchasing textbooks that don’t fit into their budgets.

High textbook costs

Eliminating the burden of high textbook costs is not an inconsequential move. According to a recent survey, in 2020:

  • 65 percent of students skipped buying a textbook due to cost.
  • 82 percent of students who reported missing a meal due to the pandemic also reported skipping buying textbooks.

When students miss out on critical course materials, they encounter more barriers to learning--an essential element of student persistence. By providing digital textbooks either at a much lower cost or no cost to students, institutions give more people the opportunity to succeed.

Another way edtech can boost student retention is by making remote learning more engaging. Yes, it’s a bit of a paradox, but it’s true: a significant way to solve the problems associated with technology is….more technology.

Polls and surveys, discussion forums, in-book discussions, and micro-quizzes are all tools instructors can use to foster a sense of belonging and drive active learning, which can all lead to better student retention and persistence. In one study of 23 online courses at two community colleges, researchers discovered that student success is linked to the level and quality of interpersonal interactions they encounter.

And finally, edtech can bolster existing “offline” resources. From on-campus therapists and student coaches to financial planning experts, many higher learning institutions have knowledgeable staff to help students succeed. At the same time, mobilizing that knowledge and getting it to students when they need it most can be tricky--and this is where technology can be a significant enabler. Here are two examples:

  • Nudges are just-in-time, behavior-altering digital alerts, such as texts to remind students to fill in paperwork for financial assistance or use tutoring and academic advising services. According to one study, students at two-year STEM colleges who received nudges reported higher rates of persistence.
  • Innovations that enable academics and their students to have discussions within an e-textbook or online portal can point students in the right direction at the right time. For example, if an instructor sees a student struggling--like when a paper is due or an upcoming exam--they can remind that student of the services available online or on-campus.

Bridging the Student Enrollment and Graduation Gap

Bridging the Student Enrollment and Graduation Gap

Higher learning institutions everywhere are evolving their approaches and using edtech to deliver more quality learning experiences—for everyone. Check out our customer stories to learn how higher learning institutions made learning more equitable, affordable, and convenient with digital textbooks.

The pandemic has laid bare the many longstanding racial and ethnic inequalities in our societies. Let’s not let this opportunity to rethink our education system go to waste. By leveraging the right tools for the right purpose, we can deliver student retention strategies that work for the students who need a college degree the most.