Recently, I have had a chance to stop and look at student retention from a 50,000 foot view while working as an educational consultant, on-campus as a Dean, and through many conversations and observations from numerous colleagues across the country (retention defined as fall to spring and fall to fall). There are two major points about student retention that stand out:
- No one owns retention
- Current retention programs – even successful ones – are not scalable
What does “no one owns retention” mean? While there are many retention programs going on at any given time within institutions, most are isolated in student services, individual colleges and schools, or at the department level. We rarely see retention programs interconnected into a larger, comprehensive vision and strategy for increasing retention institution wide. To truly push the institution retention needle, a concerted, coordinated effort to reach ALL at-risk students needs to be strategized, bought into, funded and implemented in a very visible way.
Second is the issue of scalability. There are many programs that have shown success in increasing student retention. Some examples include first year experience programs, academic coaching, early intervention, learning communities, intrusive advising, peer tutoring and the list goes on. All have their merits, but all are generally high touch, labor intensive (read expensive) making them difficult to scale, not mention susceptible to budget cuts. A recent presentation I attended detailed a retention program for at risk students which placed dedicated college staff in targeted classes. The goal was to have a familiar face that would “be around” so at risk students would feel comfortable asking them for assistance when needed. A great, even noble effort, but scalable? Hardly. It is not my intention to discredit any retention efforts currently going on as they are much needed, rather, just to point out the fact scalability in retention efforts is generally time and budget constrained.
So what do we do about it? This is going to come as a shocker, but I think technology can play a crucial role in retention. Let me clearly state I do not think technology alone is the panacea to retention, but what else has the greatest potential to cut across the entire institution? Generally, it is the LMS, portal, or some similar technology which touches every student on a daily basis, minimum weekly basis. It is a common connector that an institution wide retention program could be built around. It would allow for a central entity to be responsible for implementing and sustaining core retention practices adopted by the institution. Plus, we now see the encouraging direction real time analytics is headed and with it the potential to identify students at risk. Once students at risk are known – and known early on – the institution can develop strategies to intervene before it is too late. Current data indicators used to identify at risk students are too late in the process to help struggling students recover. Mid-term grades would be an example. The marriage of using cross-cutting institutional technologies such as the LMS combined with real time data analytics has the potential to truly revolutionize how retention is addressed in higher education.
More importantly, though, while technology has the potential for more effective, real-time retention efforts, it still takes an institutional effort and vision to own retention for all students.