With higher education enrollment trending down and economic uncertainty on the rise, retaining enrolled students is vital to the financial health of higher education institutions. That’s a tall order at most colleges and universities given student wellness challenges, financial fears, and pandemic-related impacts.
Indeed, first-year student persistence rates have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Administrators know that student retention is a complex issue affected by many factors. But as they work to fine-tune faculty support and financial aid offerings, they’d be wise to also center the need for a modern digital student experience that can help learners thrive, both this term and through graduation.
High-quality digital experience matters to students—a lot. Ninety-six percent of full-time college students rate it as important to their satisfaction, according to research from Accenture. But that priority is at odds with the outdated systems and bureaucracy many students experience on campus.
Moving from a friction-filled to a frictionless student experience can help move the needle on retention rates—and not only by lessening student frustration. Here are four ways higher-ed leaders can leverage technology and decision-ready data to deliver on what their students want and expect.
1. Empower students to easily chart their way to success
Keeping students engaged has proven increasingly difficult amid worsening mental health challenges. From 2013 to 2021, college students experienced a 135 percent increase in depression and 110 percent increase in anxiety, according to data from the Healthy Minds Network.
Colleges and universities that have made students’ digital access a priority are already seeing the success of those efforts. For instance, Furman University recently replaced a decades-old tech system with a cloud-native platform that unifies campus operations and student services systems. That move means students can now access transcripts, make counseling or tutoring appointments, and complete work-study time tracking from one streamlined, mobile-friendly interface. And it’s transformed student registration from several days into a digital-first experience that can be knocked out in a matter of minutes.
Wellesley College made a similar investment in modernizing its student systems, and students feel the impact of the improved experience. “Under our previous registration system, you would be frantically copying and pasting course codes and you never knew if you were going to get your classes,” one student explained. “Now everything is super streamlined.” Meanwhile, streamlined dashboards also help students track their academic progress toward a degree and indicate which courses are still necessary to complete, helping to minimize the risk that confusion impedes momentum.
2. Give real-time focus to student needs to maximize resource alignment
Misalignment of resources and student requests (i.e., when students can’t get into specific courses or access their academic advisor) can, at scale, pose a retention risk. But when colleges and universities know what their students want—in real time—they can keep their resources aligned.
This alignment is all but impossible through annual student surveys, historical enrollment trends or registrar assumptions gleaned from declared majors. When students have mobile-first tools with which to build their ideal course schedules and navigate registration requirements, the result is a more intuitive, user-centric registration experience for students—and real-time data for registrars.
That real-time resource alignment extends to academic advising as well. At Tallahassee Community College (TCC), students easily book academic advising appointments through the school’s mobile-first platform. Leaders tap the platform’s reporting and analytics tools to understand why they’re making these appointments. If data analytics reveals that students tend to reach out to advisers at a particular inflection point in their academic journey, for instance, the institution may proactively roll out question-and-answer workshops to address that need at scale and for even those students who might be hesitant to seek support.
3. Nurture a culture of belonging
Recent research makes clear that students who have a stronger sense of belonging at their institutions have higher levels of academic engagement and achievement—and are less likely to leave before completing their studies. That’s particularly true for students from lower-income and first-generation backgrounds and communities of color.
With a deeper understanding of who their students are, institutions can develop an authentic culture of belonging and inclusion. A unified student information platform can indicate each student’s pronouns and name pronunciation, so that everyone on campus—students, faculty, and staff—knows the correct way to address and refer to everyone else. With this insight, institutions include and welcome students with each interaction.
Comprehensive data also enables institutions to slice and dice their student population by cohorts—a powerful tool for targeted outreach and retention initiatives. Consider, for example, that first-generation college students account for more than 40 percent of entering students but complete college at lower rates than their peers. Aware of this challenge, North Central College developed a targeted program for first-generation students that offers mentorship from first-gen faculty and staff as well as workshops on topics such as decoding campus terminology.
4. Get (even more) proactive with support
Many schools attempt to spot students at risk for dropping out using only one or two variables, such as low attendance and poor grades. But those lagging indicators may mean interventions come too late and many at-risk students get overlooked. Real-time, comprehensive student data can help identify additional segments for earlier outreach.
California College of the Arts blended student data with its learning management system data to create a risk profile for every student. Those risk profiles inform strategies developed by its student success teams. Robust data and powerful analytics also allowed Georgia State University to proactively mine its financial databases to determine which students needed financial help—a data-driven move that allowed them to ultimately make 70,000 aid payments.
Student retention isn’t determined only by the value of an institution’s educational offerings. From campus culture to the ease of enrollment, higher education institutions can improve nearly every element of the student experience—and address problems that threaten to derail students’ education—with data-driven strategies and a willingness to evolve alongside their student populations.
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