I never quite understood it: School Operators and Administrators huddled in budget meetings trying to navigate revenue shortfalls and inevitably focusing on Admissions and increased enrollment goals as the panacea for all that ails the institution financially. Though the discussion may consider attrition rates as a contributory factor to subpar accrued revenues, the seemingly default position to meeting and exceeding revenue goals is to increase enrollments.
Let’s be clear; increased enrollments are a great goal and result, especially if that increase is tied to the quality of your program offerings, excellent student outcomes and a rewarding overall student experience. Achieving these three benchmarks in your institution, along with a strong Marketing and Admissions dynamic almost ensure institutional growth in enrollment numbers.
Increasing enrollments is just one aspect of a comprehensive fiscal plan. Retaining active students is the complimentary and ultimately more controllable component of revenue maintenance and growth.
Despite this seemingly logical formula for financial growth, many institutions forsake employing or designating campus personnel to oversee Student Services in an effort to mitigate student attrition and maximize student retention. Somehow, student population growth and the affiliated revenues are disproportionally assigned to the performance of the Admissions team with very little resources afforded to servicing the non-academic needs of active students.
Schools that service a significant non-traditional or adult learner population know that there are specific external issues that these students must overcome in order to achieve academic competence and program completion. In marketing their institutions, flexible schedules are heralded as a means by which the adult learner can “finish what they started.” Online and hybrid academic delivery have evolved as a practical means by which these non-traditional learners can balance family, work and school into their demanding schedules. With numerous studies and data points featured on the internet about the increased lifetime earnings one can achieve by earning a degree, postsecondary education has an opportunity to truly “change lives” assuming these institutions can retain these students to the point of graduation.
After evolving from the Admissions world into the roles of Retention Specialist and Director of Student Development, I formulated what I deemed the 3 R’s of Student Retention. In assessing the most effective ways to support both the traditional and non-traditional learner, I found that a solid Retention Program should ensure that students are supported by personnel that focus on providing Roots, Resources and Reinforcement.
Students establish roots or institutional investment through clubs, activities and events that are unique to the institution and engage students through establishing tradition and a student experience that they perceive as specific to your institution. Resources are an assembled roster of social service, municipal or federal solutions that can be extended to students navigating issues such as child care, foreclosure, lost income or any external obstacle that may present itself during the matriculation tenure of the student. Reinforcement is best described as an institutional commitment to consistently provide activities or workshops that reinforce the career goals of your program offerings. Having employers and HR professionals on campus to address students about the relevance of curriculum elements and soft skills will keep students focused on the finish line, and reinforces that their attendance, as well as social and academic performance are vital precursors to their eventual career success.
Having an effective Retention formula is important, but having the personnel dedicated to executing it is crucial. Faculty members, Registrars and Directors of Education are often the de facto responsibility parties when it comes to student retention. Given their primary roles in academic delivery, compliance and curriculum development, one has to question the operational feasibility and wisdom in charging them with the additional responsibility of driving a proactive retention initiative.
When you do the math, doesn’t it make sense to afford a salary to a Student Services professional who can be accountable for protecting your marketing and enrollment investment through effective student retention?
While pondering that question; take into consideration the observation of Neal Raisman in his article, The Power of Retention featured on the University Business website. When analyzing the disproportionate onus on Admissions to enroll more students as a revenue driver, Raisman notes; “The institution has spent so much time and money to get them to come, that the school forgets it is much easier and much less costly to keep a student than to recruit and enroll them to begin with. Before classes, there are numerous communications, well planned activities at orientations, events, even celebrations to make sure the students will show up. Once classes start, most schools seem to forget to keep up the effort that says we are glad you came.”
It is indeed a cautionary tale for higher education. Continuing to put all your revenue growth plans in the Admissions basket without assigning an accountable instrument of Retention Management is tantamount to pouring water into a bucket with holes in the bottom. Start plugging your holes with Student Services and the attrition leaks will start to subside, neglect the holes and your potential revenue dollars will continue to leak out the front door along with your students.
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