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The secret higher education leaders need to know to combat student attrition

Only 62 percent of students who started college in fall 2017 returned to the same institution in 2018. 

That’s according to the National Student Clearinghouse who also found an average of 1 in 8 students who started in any fall term transferred to a different institution by the following fall (based on findings from 2009-2017 cohorts). 

But with the current bustle of students on campus and prospective students reaching out about questions and tours, it can be tempting to write student attrition off as a problem affecting only other higher education institutions. 

“Few institutions take student retention seriously,” former Syracuse professor and Completing College author Vincent Tinto tells the Chronicle of Higher Ed. “Most treat it as one more item to add to the list of issues to be addressed.” 

But that can be a costly mistake when it comes to funding and maintaining a positive reputation. 

The secret to boosting retention: Student engagement

There are many factors to consider when getting at the root cause of student attrition: students may leave because of financial reasons, for family emergencies, or after realizing that college just isn’t right for them. But other students leave for less obvious reasons, like a feeling of not fitting in. 

A sense of belonging is a key factor in motivating students to stay enrolled and graduate, as Tinto writes in a post for Inside Higher Ed. As he puts it: “Although a sense of belonging can mirror students’ prior experiences, it is most directly shaped by the broader campus climate and their daily interactions with other students, faculty, staff and administrators on campus—and the messages those interactions convey.” 

While increasing retention requires a comprehensive multi-pronged approach, a strong strategy is contingent on ensuring students feel involved in—and welcomed at—their college or university. 

With this latest research in mind, here are 5 strategies to engage students at your college or university:

1. Reach students where they are

Engaging students starts by communicating with them where they are most comfortable. While options such as in-person meetings or email addresses are key, don’t rely on students showing up during standard business hours or finding contact information for a specific faculty or staff member. Instead, make it easy for them to reach the right person or team the first time around via the channel of their choice. For a student-friendly engagement strategy, try these techniques: 

Create an ‘always-on’ channel that empowers students to ask questions or share feedback 24/7 from any computer, tablet, or smartphone. 

Put an end to the contact information hunt by adding a pop-out tab or button to a standard form that collects key information.

Provide a text number to give students a way to quickly engage by doing something they’re already used to.

2. Create a comfortable environment

If students don’t feel comfortable reaching out, they won’t. This is especially true for freshmen— many of whom are just learning how to be independent and may not feel comfortable asking what they perceive as a “dumb” question. Give students a way to reach out anonymously, either by not providing or concealing their contact information. While some people cringe at opening the door to anonymous inquiries, these interactions are important opportunities for understanding student perspectives and building trust. 

3. Establish a quick and intuitive safety reporting system

When students feel safe on campus, they’re more likely to want to return. Evaluate your current safety reporting tool to make certain that it’s quick and intuitive for students and that the right staff members are immediately looped in when reports are made. 

4. Provide excellent customer service—every time

Showing students that they are valued members of your community starts with listening. But it can’t stop there. Prove to them that their voice matters by issuing thoughtful, timely responses. Don’t just point students to your website or issue a single-line response. Speak to the specific question or issue raised and, if applicable, any follow-up you will be taking. Ensuring every response within and across departments is complete, accurate, and courteous creates a positive experience for all involved.

Important: Don’t let students or others feel the pain of institutional bureaucracy or back-office complexities. Ensure every question, suggestion, or concern is automatically routed to the right person or team and make it easy for staff to re-route and collaborate to ensure a seamless experience for your customers. 

5. Collect student feedback on interactions

While it’s the last step in the process, it’s arguably the most critical. Don’t let the conversation end with your response. Instead, make it an opportunity to invite student feedback on the interaction. It might be tempting to skip this step because you “know” your response wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but asking for feedback makes your institution smarter and ensures students’ needs are being met. 

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