These six truths will mean different things to different campuses – certainly, in your environment, you will know best how to convert the truth into action to drive improved retention. Here are some questions to ask your leadership team that may help point the way to new initiatives, or modifications to current programs, in order to increase student engagement and retention:
TRUTH ONE: SOME STUDENTS LEAVE, NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO.
- Take inventory of your retention initiatives (particularly those that cost meaningful time or money). How many of them are aimed at keeping students who would stay anyway? Are any focused on “saving” students that are likely to leave, no matter what?
- What is in place to identify key risk factors and raise flags when students show signs of struggle? How many of those programs specifically focus on the unique conditions for very new students?
TRUTH TWO: THERE ARE COUNTLESS PROVEN, HIGH-IMPACT INITIATIVES THAT ARE FREE, OR VERY LOW COST.
- Can you quickly identify your most expensive retention initiatives (by both financial cost, and/or human resource costs)?
- Is there evidence that these expensive initiatives are working?
- Ask your team (all of your staff and instructors), what they could do to improve retention, offer small prizes for great ideas and immediately implement the free or low-cost ideas.
TRUTH THREE: NO ONE DROPS OUT OF SCHOOL BECAUSE OF ATTENDANCE! THEY ALL STOP ATTENDING BECAUSE OF SOMETHING ELSE.
- While attendance is critical to track and is a clear sign of struggle or risk, what are you doing to understand why students are really missing class?
- Are you capturing “drop reason codes” for every student that leaves? If so, what percent of your drops are coded “attendance” (or similar)? If it’s over 15%, challenge your team to get more information about why “attendance” students really left. Make it a goal to get that reason code to be less than 20% of the total drops. If you can’t, it means your staff and faculty don’t know your students, and aren’t talking with each other when a student leaves – someone on campus should know the student well enough to have some idea about why they stopped attending.
TRUTH FOUR: STUDENTS OFTEN TELL US THAT THEY ARE GOING TO STRUGGLE THROUGH IMPORTANT SIGNALS – EVEN BEFORE CLASSES START.
- What are you doing to identify at-risk students before they start classes?
- How quickly are you acting on important signs like missed assignments, tardiness, etc… early in the term?
TRUTH FIVE: MEASURE WHAT MATTERS (AND ONLY WHAT MATTERS) – THEN ACT.
- Ask what actions the team has taken that week (that day, that month), because of data they reviewed.
- Ask the team for evidence that their actions are making a positive impact.
TRUTH SIX: THE CAMPUS CULTURE IS LIKELY THE SINGLE BIGGEST INFLUENCE ON RETENTION (AND EMPLOYMENT) OUTCOMES.
- How have you (as a campus leader) reacted to bad news when it comes to campus performance? This says a lot about your culture.
- What do you do to reinforce the importance of employment outcomes? The more students see their education as directly linked to their dream of a new career, the more likely they are to stay – building an employment-centered culture is important.
Think of how you can challenge your team to reassess the programs and processes you have in place today – do they support student success? Or are you doing what you have always done and expecting a different result?
As a place to start – dare to ask your leadership team some thought-provoking questions. Give them permission to question the status quo (if you’re really innovative, you’ll offer a reward for the person who suggests the biggest practical change). To make sure people feel safe, let them know that no suggestion is off limits – you don’t have to implement everything suggested, that’s part of the fun – get your team to go through the suggestions together and prioritize the selected few to be implemented.
Then, measure the changes and celebrate the improvements.