How to improve higher ed student retention rates

How to improve higher ed student retention rates


by: Kendra Madsen

One major challenge many four-year colleges and universities face today is student retention. A substantial number of students are starting college only to drop out at some point. When students don't make it to graduation, it's costly for both the students themselves and the universities they leave behind.

Related: Higher education marketing—crucial strategies & trends

Data from the NSC Research Center found on average 61.6% of entering freshman in 2016 returned to school the following fall semester. 73.9% of freshman returned to the same university or transferred to continue their studies. Retention rates among white and Asian students tend to be higher while black and hispanic students fall below average. Among black students, only 52.5% continued school at the university they originally enrolled in.

But before you create a plan to address student retention, it's important to first understand what's causing students to drop out.

  • Cost. The costs of higher education have been rising continually, and if students can't receive financial aid, then staying enrolled at college can be difficult for many to afford.

  • Homesickness. When students begin their college careers, many don't know anyone else at the university. If students have difficulty making connections with peers around them, homesickness and loneliness can cause students to drop out.

  • Unclear expectations. Adjusting from high school to university can be difficult for many first-year students with certain expectations regarding academic success as they discover different expectations in college.

While these three challenges merely scratch the surface of student retention concerns at universities, there are solutions that can help any college create a student retention plan. These five steps will help you to create a retention plan that will fit the unique needs of students at your university.

Know your students

To help your student body overcome the obstacles they encounter during their educational journey, you first have to know your student body. What are the biggest issues facing the students at your university? Finances, mental health, isolation, lack of resources? It's hard to find a solution if you don't first find the root of the problem.

To figure out what your students need, collect data on which programs and resources on campus are already being used. Poll your student body to find out what challenges they're facing. Create an open dialogue with your faculty so they can address the problems they see affecting their students. By gathering this information, you can brainstorm and try new approaches to helping your students succeed.

Define student success

Based on your research, define what student success looks like at your university. This could include the rate of students making it to graduation, the time it takes students to graduate, improved learning outcomes, experiential learning, or more employed students at graduation. This definition will vary for each school, depending on the different programs available.

Once you've crafted this definition, share it with your faculty, staff and student body. This gives the entire campus a common goal to work toward. When students understand what success looks like within your institution, they'll be more prepared to do the things they need to reach success. Many students enter college unsure of what it means to be a successful college student, and creating this clear goal for them can help them better adapt to college.

Empower your students with resources

Many college students move away from home to attend school and may feel isolated in a new, possibly foreign environment. They'll be learning to live on their own while also handling research projects and trying to pass their finals. When faced with these overwhelming difficulties, it might seem easier to the student to drop out. By providing resources to your student body, you give them the power to overcome these challenges.

Some resources that can be invaluable to students include:

  • Financial services

  • Writing center

  • Tutoring center

  • Counseling

  • Workshops for test-taking skills

  • Outreach and engagement centers

  • Student unions and clubs

  • LGBTQ+ support organizations

The options for resources are limitless, and by understanding your student body, you can create organizations that help your students feel empowered.

Set up an intervention network

The earlier students get help when they're facing problems, the better their chances are for overcoming challenges and finding success at school. This is a process that takes everyone contributing to be effective. This means that professors might need to receive training on how to recognize students who are beginning to struggle.

As a university, you need to establish warning signs for professors to watch for in their students. Professors can then refer these students to counselors or advisors who can reach out with resources and information that can help them.

It's encouraging for students to know there are people at the university who care about them and who notice when they're missing class or struggling to keep up.

Create a community

Many first-year students come to college knowing very few people there, if any at all. It's vital to help those students make connections and friendships that make them feel like they belong at the university. Helping students find their community can keep homesickness at bay.

Creating learning communities and clubs while providing volunteer opportunities in the community can help students make valuable connections with others. Getting involved on and off campus also gives students the opportunity to gain experience for their future career.

"It's important for students to figure out what they don't want to do, so they can figure out what they want to do. College is a great time to experiment by volunteering with local organizations and highlighting some potential career paths. Students have so many different pathways that they can take as they begin their own lives and make their own choices." — Dustin Ramsdell, Helping College Students Build Community Connections

Key takeaways

First-year students and transfer students from community colleges often feel overwhelmed by the challenges of starting their academic career at a new university. Universities can help smooth that transition and increase the success rates of their students by implementing a student retention plan.

These retention plans should encompass ideas for the following five areas:

  1. Know your students

  2. Define student success

  3. Empower your students with resources

  4. Set up an intervention network

  5. Create student communities

By focusing on these five areas as you create a student retention plan, you can increase your students' success rates and create happy, successful alumni.

Is your school delivering a strong, consistent message with its brand marketing? Learn more in our free ebook: Branding in student recruitment


Kendra Madsen

Kendra Madsen is a content marketing intern for Lucidpress. She loves writing, the outdoors, and obsessing over plants. You can connect with Kendra on LinkedIn.

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