What is one of the most critical components of a tuition-dependent university’s bottom line? Student retention. With many institutions grappling with competitive admissions and declining enrollments, retaining students has never been more essential than it is today.

Acknowledging the importance of keeping students happy and successful, the University of Mary Washington (UMW) initiated a series of innovative and multi-faceted approaches directly addressing and meeting students’ needs, all with the goal of boosting student retention rates.

Founded in 1908 and named for the mother of our country’s founding father, Fredericksburg, Virginia-based UMW has a rich history of traditions and academic excellence. The school’s 340-acre main residential campus, within 50 miles of Washington, D.C., serves approximately 4,400 students, more than a quarter of whom are self-identified minorities. With UMW’s high-impact learning style and 14:1 student/faculty ratio, student support is our mainstay.

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To prepare students for the 21st century workplace, UMW has prioritized technological innovation as key to retaining students and helping them thrive in a rapidly changing digital world. As a result, the university brought on board various technology partners, including higher education managed technology service provider Apogee, to support its student retention efforts in three key ways.

1. Engage students through digital and social media: The Eaglevision platform, our school’s custom web-based portal for content submission, has vastly enhanced UMW’s strategies to drive engagement and student retention in ways that students understand and embrace. Student organizations now can promote activities through a steady stream of content via the platform with flyers, videos, livestreams, countdowns, and social media for display on digital signs in academic buildings, student spaces, residence halls and also through a dedicated UMW television channel in their residence hall rooms. UMW also promotes major events on Eaglevision through more directed social media campaigns that may include Instagram photo contests or sharing students’ posts using specific hashtags.

Many student groups have reported the platform’s benefits at helping them advertise their events to the entire campus. For example, last year BOND (Brothers of a New Direction), a new student organization designed to empower men of color on campus, broadcast student success stories on digital signs across campus. In 2019, digital countdowns reminded students that Commencement Day was approaching and encouraged those struggling that the end was in sight. A “UMWMade” feed featured social media posts about research partnerships with faculty using the hashtag #UMWMade, driving conversations around – and awareness of – academic priorities on campus.

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2. Promote experiential learning through strategic partnerships: UMW’s Center for Career and Professional Development helps prepare students for life after Mary Washington by providing experiential learning opportunities through jobs and internships managed by outside partners. Using Handshake, cloud-based career network software, students can connect with hundreds of employers and internship opportunities, supporting their professional development and encouraging them to become more invested in their educations through creating meaningful experiences. For example, December 2018 UMW graduate Nancy Pham was an Eaglevision Student Ambassador for three years. The Ambassadorship, managed by Eaglevision partner Apogee, tasked Pham with outreach and consulting for the platform, honing her communication skills through collaboration with campus offices and student groups while providing her with remote work skills.

UMW even has a robust program for students interested in unpaid internships but without the financial resources to work without pay. The Internship Grants program, funded by donations from alumni, parents, and friends of the University, typically awards grants between $500 to $2,000 for students participating in significant unpaid internship experiences. Grant winners include Tess Marie Burroughs, who worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, or Claire Goode, who interned with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Outside partners managed the experiences while UMW students received experiential knowledge.

3 ways this university is improving student engagement and retention

3. Incentivizing on-campus living with cutting-edge technology: Studies show that “residence halls help foster a strong sense of community as well as other important outcomes such as college satisfaction and academic achievement,” and UMW encourages students to live on campus beyond the two-year residency requirement. Students will consider many factors as they’re evaluating housing, but for the modern student with multiple devices and streaming needs, connectivity to Wi-Fi is crucial. UMW provides state-of-the-art Wi-Fi services in all 17 on-campus residence halls to incentivize on-campus living and enable students to use the technology they need to succeed. Other technologies include video services that allow students to watch cable programming in their rooms make students feel at home in their residential communities. All this is supported with 24/7/365 help and an on-site technician, so that students’ needs are continually met day or night.

Finally, UMW supplements these technology investments with community-building exercises including First-Year Seminar (FSEM) for freshmen and themed living communities for upper-class students, encouraging students to broaden their horizons and deepen collaboration from the residence halls to the classroom.

Ensuring student retention efforts remain relevant

In today’s competitive climate, colleges and universities face daunting challenges in the quest to improve retention rates. In an age of Instagram stories and digital assistants, strategic technology investments and programs are essential to bolstering student engagement and student retention, and for universities to stay relevant in the midst of digital acceleration.

About the Author:

Anna Billingsley is the Associate Vice President for University Relations at the University of Mary Washington.