Plummeting undergraduate enrollment is a worrisome trend across all education sectors in the US. But enrollment is only one piece of a very large puzzle, and forward-thinking leaders are also keeping tabs on shifts happening with student retention rates in higher education.
According to US National Student Clearinghouse Research statistics, first-year persistence and retention rates declined the most in the community college sector. They went up in the public, four-year college sector for the fall of 2020 compared to 2019.
At private four-year institutions, the retention rate remained stable. This stabilization, however, was preceded by a steady drop that started in 2015. There is also a significant gap in retention between types of institutions: In 2019, the retention rate at private colleges was 40.3% versus 66.2% for all higher learning sectors.
Closing this gap should be a significant priority for learning leaders at private institutions. Retention is an early indicator of how students will fare in the longer term. If students don’t stick with an institution, they are less likely to graduate and get a good job.
There are also direct bottom line impacts to consider. Every time an enrolled student drops out, the college or university loses that potential tuition revenue. The institution has to invest more in attracting new students to fill the void left by the departing individual.
By focusing on student retention now, institutions will also be prepared for any potential new student employability regulations coming down the pipe. Many policy experts are calling for rules that would hold institutions accountable for the employment outcomes of graduates and non-graduates alike. Staying ahead of the game is critical.
When it comes to developing sound student retention strategies, half the battle is defining the problem. According to Tinto’s “Model of Institutional Departure”, which is one of the more prominent theoretical models concerning student exits, three main factors drive student turnover:
There is no single silver bullet for addressing these issues, and some solutions can be worthwhile yet complex, like establishing student success centers and implementing effective job placement programs. But there is also some low-hanging fruit.
With advances in digital tech, higher learning institutions can efficiently make learning content more social and engaging both in the classroom and online. Active minds retain more knowledge, which leads to academic success, and increases the likelihood that a student will stick with the institution. As the old adage goes, success breeds success.
Here are seven cost-effective and scalable ways to create the kind of unique, dynamic learning content that can boost retention rates in higher education:
Quizzes are more than assessment tools–they also help students learn. A series of true/false or multiple-choice questions can trigger information retrieval, which helps strengthen memory. By retaining what was covered in class for longer, students can avoid the academic hurdles of forgetting course content.
With advances in digital tech, quizzes no longer generate awkward paper piles and endless marking tasks for instructors. With ed-tech, institutions can:
A positive comment here, a thought-provoking question there–it can all add up. Several studies have indicated that a sense of belonging encourages students to stick with an institution and persist until graduation. Reading doesn't have to be a solitary activity. It is one of many under-explored avenues where institutions can increase students' connection to their peers and instructors.
With e-textbooks, instructors and peers can embed discussions directly into the material. Consider pairing this capability with soft skills training for instructors that covers how to deliver feedback constructively. Nobody wants to accidentally trigger anxiety in students with the wrong word choices–making students feel secure is the goal.
Stories make information stick. They can straightforwardly convey facts and sustain attention via tension in the narrative. Experiments with business presentations show that material with character-driven, emotional narratives enhanced information recall weeks after the audience consumed the information.
In the same way, course content can be infused with short animations featuring hypothetical situations that relate to key concepts covered in the course, such as a nurse faced with an ethical dilemma. Don’t worry about creating cinematic blockbuster-quality tour de forces complete with special effects. The key here is to have a strong narrative driving the action. Low-cost or free animation tools like Doodly make it easy to create cost-effective animations that students can access on their own remotely or view during class time.
Dubbed the “$6 learning solution,” college-sponsored nudging tactics (typically focused on getting students to adopt positive task-driven behaviors) have received mixed reviews. But as it turns out, not all nudging campaigns are created equal: “While the debate on the viability of nudging has continued, we in the New York University Office of Student Success believe that text message-based nudging, if done correctly and with an appropriate level of intention, can improve student outcomes,” write senior leaders from New York University in this Inside Higher Ed piece.
Consider thoughtfully integrating nudging tactics into a broader text-based campaign to feed students learning-to-learn content that addresses meta-skills, such as time management during exam prep time. Delivered at scale, this kind of approach has the potential to benefit many students at once without the institution having to drain its budget.
Gamification, a broad term that refers to integrating game design elements in non-game environments, can be a great way to motivate students by drawing on the human desire to receive rewards. Sometimes a little bit of dopamine goes a long way in a learning environment: In one survey, professors responded that gamification drove up coursework completion and participation in group discussions.
Gamifying the learning process can be as simple as incorporating learning-based games in the classroom or using icons to track points, awards, and badges to mark where students have arrived in their learning journey. Even the most motivated individuals sometimes require a little extra boost to keep going, and gamification can get them there.
Traditional learning models that focus on one-way, instructor-to-student information transfer aren’t always the most effective way for people to learn. Hands-on learning, however, launches students into a problem or task first and then provides them with opportunities to get information as questions crop up.
For example, DataCamp is an online learning platform that features open-ended data science problems. Instructional videos are available if students get stuck, which they can explore in an organic, interactive way–rather than going through a set checklist of content.
This kind of interactive learning draws students into the course material and sets them up for success in the real world, where on-the-job learning has become the norm. Consider integrating one or two open-ended projects into course material.
Students don’t just completely disengage from the learning content out of the blue. Before this happens, students display certain behaviors, like rarely completing their course readings. Learning enablement platforms provide student analytics that enable instructors to identify at-risk students and implement intervention strategies ahead of disengagement.
For example, if the analytics show – through weekly trending data and other engagement metrics – that a student hasn’t been reviewing the assigned material, the instructor can check in with the student to ensure they understand the content and explore opportunities to get them back on track. With data-informed insights, leaders have more opportunities to improve student engagement and success.
What colleges can do to enhance student retention rates is complex. There is a myriad of factors that go into student engagement, satisfaction, and retention. But one thing is clear: by boosting student engagement with dynamic course material, and institutions can give individuals a feel for mastering a subject, which increases the likelihood they will persevere. This is one way to ultimately improve retention rates in higher education while maintaining healthy enrollment levels in the longer term.
Want to dive deeper? Learn more about BibliU Engage.
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