Many discussions, meetings, planning sessions and research projects have been conducted at colleges and universities regarding retention. For the hundreds of small, private colleges and universities that enroll large numbers of “at-risk” students, proactive retention activities are extremely important. Retention is a topic, however, that is much discussed but rarely really addressed.

At many institutions, the focus has been on trying to recruit “better” students. Colleges have been trying to enroll students with greater ability to pay and higher test scores and grade point averages for years. While there is nothing wrong with seeking to enhance the student profile, in the meantime it is more important to begin conducting business in a manner that recognizes the characteristics of the students actually enrolled. Leaders can do a number of things to increase retention rates. These ideas do not require massive investments, major curricular change or significant political risk.

Many of the initiatives discussed in this article have been implemented at Freed-Hardeman University in Tennessee with positive results. The most recent retention rates from fall to spring have been calculated at FHU and the numbers are encouraging. Rates for both newly enrolled freshmen and other students are at the highest levels in history. The University was able to retain 93% of its freshmen this term and the retention for other students was better than 95%. Keep in mind that FHU enrolls a large number of academically at-risk students and that 43% of the students are eligible for Federal Pell Grants. Following are some recommended tactics that have proven to be beneficial at small colleges and universities:

Introduce a more realistic financial aid packaging strategy. Colleges and universities enrolling large numbers of high-need students need to recognize this fact and design their award and discounting policies accordingly. You are not likely to be able to maintain a 30% discount rate when half of your students are eligible for Federal Pell Grants. Base your packaging policy and discount target on the population you currently enroll rather than basing the award policy on some arbitrary discount rate or on the practices of competing or peer institutions.

- Realistic packaging reduces the number of students forced to withdraw due to outstanding balances. - Realistic packaging reduces the amount of funds outstanding in accounts receivable each term. - In most cases, you are better served with a higher discount rate and larger enrollment than a lower discount rate with empty seats and high receivables.

The timing of financial aid packages can also make a difference. Early packaging for both new and returning students allows sufficient time for financial planning on the part of students and their families. Students packaged over the summer, for example, have little time for financial planning and this often translates into attrition.

Check outstanding balances four weeks before the end of each term. The Business Office should run a list of students with outstanding balances four weeks before the end of each term. The list should be reviewed with the Director of Financial Aid and students who are otherwise academically successful and good citizens should be contacted by telephone or in person. On a case-by-case basis, consider creative payment options and even the possibility of covering outstanding balances with institutional aid.

Review the grades for general education courses at the end of every term and plan academic support services and study hall options accordingly. It should be easy to identify the courses (or particular sections of courses) in which students are struggling. While you may not be able to change the curriculum, faculty or classroom experience, you can offer specific academic support and approach students enrolled in “at-risk” courses to encourage them to take advantage of available assistance.

Send a representative from your academic support area to sit in on classes with high rates of students earning “D” or “F” grades or where there are high withdrawal rates. Sometimes, sitting in on a few classes of a particular course where students struggle to succeed can inform academic support tactics. Additionally, programs such as the Supplemental Instruction program, an academic support model first instituted at The University of Missouri-Kansas City by Dr. Deanna Martin, is a program where students receive not only academic support, but assistance in becoming independent learners and can be targeted at such courses. Data has proven that regular attendance at the sessions will help raise grade point averages.

Schedule meetings with departmental deans every term. These meetings can be used to provide feedback to deans on student success rates as a function of major, course and section. The deans can also participate in discussions to determine study groups and the focus of academic support offerings.

Have the chief academic officer keep numeric counts of the number of students in each major each term. Keeping counts might encourage accountability for academic success in the classroom.

Require an “academic” orientation for new student athletes. Many schools have separate orientation programs for new student athletes because athletic events can often keep student athletes from attending new student orientation. This will allow the dissemination of information regarding institutional policies and resources that might otherwise not be shared. Consider shifting the focus of these programs to educate students on study skills and academic support services.

Initiate a formal referral program for coaches. While establishing a formal process for faculty to make referrals for academic support, a similar process should be established for coaches. Referrals should be made for students considered to be at risk academically, or socially, as well as for students unlikely to make teams or unlikely to play.

Hire a group of full-time professionals to advise new students and students who are undecided on a major. A number of advantages result from hiring full-time advisors: 

  • It is easier to hold such staff members accountable for activities and outcomes.
  • These individuals will have much more time to dedicate to advising and retention support services.
  • Opportunities emerge to engage these individuals in important tasks in addition to advising.

Train academic advisors on the basics of Satisfactory Academic Progress rules for financial aid.More and more students are running into difficulties with SAP as the government has strengthened the rules. Students are deciding to leave schools due to shortcomings for both the quantitative and qualitative measures. Transfer students, in particular, often run into situations where eligibility limits are being met before sufficient credits are earned for graduation. Advisors should be better equipped to educate students about the SAP implications for scheduling decisions.Some schools have gone so far as to require the financial aid office to sign off on scheduling changes to ensure that students are made of aware of any possible impact on schedule changes with regard to compliance with Satisfactory Academic Progress measures and financial aid program aggregate award limits.Consider locating the advising center near the financial aid office. At FHU, leaders have discovered that proximity breeds natural cross-training between the two offices and facilitates easy referrals.Have advisors make personal calls and schedule one-on-one meetings with students earning “D” or “F” grades at midterm. The key here is not to just attempt academic intervention, but to ensure personal contact. This means that all referrals are tracked and follow-up continues with the students until personal meetings have been completed for all students on the referral list.Inform parents of academic, social and athletic referrals. Engage the parents as partners in the intervention process. Rework your approach to FERPA waivers to accommodate this practice. Inform parents at registration events of the academic supports available for their children, the cost and the process of accessing these supports.

Schedule a private session with parents at Orientation to discuss the family’s role in retention. The first inclination for parents when speaking with children in social, academic, financial or athletic distress is to bring them home. Take the opportunity at orientation to educate parents on how to work with administrators and faculty to encourage persistence. Consider the creation of checklists or a newsletter to facilitate positive parental support.

Advisors should have a telephone conversation with every student who misses a pre-registration deadline. This sounds like a simple solution and many administrators believe this is already being done at their institutions, but there is a big difference between an attempted contact and a completed contact. The key here is to track the contact rates. Accountability for those responsible for contacting the students can be accomplished with shared documents including input from callers relating date of contact and documentation of student response.

Encourage new students to establish goals during their “freshman experience” course. At Freed-Hardeman University, students are required to write their short-term and long-term goals outlining their financial, academic, social and spiritual goals.

These goals can be shared with academic advisors. As part of each advising session, advisors can explain to students how each course supports their long-term and short-term goals. Advisors should be able to explain to each student, each term how each course contributes to their major and how each course is useful for their career goals..

This will require input and coordination with the faculty. Deans and faculty members should be well equipped to explain the importance of each course offering to the advisors. Proactive reinforcement of how courses help students to achieve their goals is extremely important. It is easy for students to lose sight of their overall purpose in enrollment at the institution. Proactive, positive reinforcement every term can encourage persistence.

Dissuade students from academically inappropriate majors. Advisors can help students immediately by having frank discussions about the likelihood of academic success in particular majors, and even courses. For example, it may not make sense for students to pursue a major in nursing when their high school transcripts indicate lack of success in science courses. Even if students still want to pursue risky majors, the conversation at least creates the possibility for an academic support plan of action to help the student succeed in a particular major.

Fully integrate career counseling into academic advising. The advisors should work closely with career services to assist students in creating schedules that are in line with career objectives.

Encourage participation in co-curricular activities as part of the advising process. Advisors have unique access to academic credentials, admission applications and essays so they are in a position to recommend participation in clubs and organizations on campus that may be of interest to their students. Obviously, participation in activities outside of the classroom is generally good for retention. Some colleges and universities even require student attendance at a minimum number of campus and community events.

Encourage academic advisors to attend campus community events. Participation and attendance at events on campus provide opportunities for advisors to interact with students outside the official advising function. Leaders at Freed-Hardeman University have found that this strengthens relationships and facilitates communication between the advisors and students.

Conduct a comprehensive review of academic credit policies for majors, graduation, transfer credits, AP courses and electives. Credit policies can influence both recruitment and retention.

  • A recent article in The Washington Post speculated that the decision by Dartmouth College to discontinue offering credit for AP courses may have contributed to a 14% drop in applications for admission.
  • It is hard to defend the number of institutions who force students to retake courses they have already completed successfully at other accredited colleges and universities. 
  • Excessive credit requirements for graduation can place students in a position where financial aid resources are depleted before graduation requirements are met. A review of graduation credit requirements at Freed-Hardeman University resulted in a reduction of required credits from 132 to 126. The implications for this reduction are significant. 
  • Harsh transfer credit policies can force students to take longer to graduate. This has serious implications for levels of indebtedness, not to mention lost career earnings. 
  • Excessive credit requirements for majors limit the ability of students to take courses outside of the intended major and jeopardize a well-rounded college experience.
Utilize the National Student Clearinghouse to determine where your students enroll after departing your institution. Colleges and universities are able to access the StudentTracker function of the Clearinghouse to find out where their students enroll and if their students enroll elsewhere. The National Student Clearinghouse has access to enrollment information at nearly all of the post-secondary institutions in the country.
  • Finding out where your students enroll might inform retention issues. 
  • Discovering students who leave your institution but do not enroll elsewhere demonstrates the importance of your retention practices.

Work with vendors to identify technology that will make your retention activities efficient. There are a number of companies offering technology to better track students. Starfish Retention Solutions and Pharos Resources are just two. You can find out more by visiting their websites atwww.starfishsolutions.comorwww.pharosresources.com.