Educator Tips

What is student retention, and why does it matter?

By Brian Soika Published on

Student retention is an important metric of success for universities and students. However, determining how to measure it—and interpreting the results—presents a complex challenge for higher education administrators. 

Cue Jerome Lucido, PhD, executive director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice and founder of USC Rossier’s Master of Education in Enrollment Management and Policy, in which he also teaches. 

Lucido recently shared his expertise on how professionals in higher education should think about student retention, as well as how to improve it at your university.   

What is student retention?

Student retention is often measured in return rates from one year to another among students. However, “it may be better considered as student persistence or student progress,” noted Lucido, as hard numbers don’t tell you the whole story. 

Basic statistics fail to reveal relevant information about students who stopped- or dropped out. You don’t learn why they didn’t return, or to what extent they made progress towards their degree.

If you want to improve student retention, view your return rates in conjunction with other data points to create a more nuanced strategy. 

Become a leader in higher education administration. 

Staying enrolled benefits students and universities 

“There’s a grand bargain between students and institutions,” said Lucido. 

While universities value students as their “educational lifeblood” and want them to succeed, they have financial interests in retaining them as well. If they lose them before they graduate, they also lose their tuition dollars. Plus, they have to spend money on recruitment to make up for the loss.

Similarly, students also benefit financially by remaining enrolled. Incurring education debt without earning a degree is the worst possible outcome for a student. 

Student retention is a key factor in enrollment management

Student retention often falls under the purview of enrollment management, which is usually overseen by a senior administrator such as a Provost, Vice President or Dean. 

While enrollment management covers a complex network of issues, retention is a “critically important” element noted Lucido.

Effective enrollment managers determine how to support students who need help succeeding. They also have to consider the impacts of students who drop out. Does it impact the university’s mission to support students of color or with special needs through graduation? How does it affect revenues? What does it say about the university’s reputation?

Student retention starts with admission policies

Student retention is rooted in admission practices. By admitting individuals who align with your institution’s mission and values, you lay the groundwork for a successful student experience.

Some institutions refine their  admission policies to promote better retention by examining which students have been successful in the past. However, it is critical not to create rigid admission policies that reduce access for low-income and first generation students who demonstrate academic promise and the determination to be successful.  

Increase retention through a variety of tools

Student retention requires a comprehensive strategy that includes “lots of data, research and a campus-wide commitment,” suggested Lucido. 

Here are a few tools that can increase student retention:

  • Student financial aid. Use financial assistance not just as a recruitment strategy, but as support through graduation.
  • Student orientation. Make sure students understand how processes work, and how to navigate campus.
  • Academic advising. Guide students through the right courses in the right order, and look for red flags of struggle.
  • Payment plans. Do your institutions’ payment plans make it easier or harder for students to pay tuition?
  • Registration outreach. Ensure students who are eligible to register for classes have done so. 

Success is more complicated than a graduation rate

The ultimate metric for retention is your university’s graduation rate. But measuring success is more complex. For example, a graduation rate in four years tells a different story about students’ experiences than a rate of six years. 

Year to year retention rates can also be telling. Examining students who left your university after one, two or three years may reveal opportunities to provide additional support at key points in their trajectory towards graduation.

A graduate degree prepares you to manage student retention

Because student retention is a complex issue that intersects with other areas of administration, you should consider a master’s or doctoral degree if you’re considering a career in higher education. 

While enrollment management is most often charged with oversight of retention, other leadership positions can play a crucial role in managing it as well. 

Additionally, recruitment oversees communication to prospective students about the program, as well as preparing them for the school experience.  

Meanwhile, student aid professionals promote the continual progress and access to assistance for students, while the orientation team helps students integrate into campus life. 

Learn more about how a master’s or doctoral program can prepare you to excel in all of these individual areas. 

Campuses play a big role in determining who drops out

Some individual characteristics may portend student success, such as academic preparation or being the first person in a family to attend college. However, “institutional characteristics tend to be more indicative of graduation and retention rates,” said Lucido. 

Residential campuses with ample student housing typically see higher retention rates. Students who live on campus have more opportunities to engage with the student body and their coursework than those who have to commute. When you live off campus, you’re not only less integrated with campus, you incur transportation costs and inconvenience.  

The formula for student retention is changing

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 forced student retention professionals to re-organize some of their priorities. Health and safety is likely to stay top of mind for students and families for some time. Institutions that continue to successfully retain students need to “demonstrate that the campus experience is still intact while having learned from the crisis,” suggested Lucido.

Communication has renewed importance among retention officers. You need to keep students and families informed about efforts to ensure the safety of classrooms and student housing. More sweeping changes like tuition adjustments are also an option for universities that see an increase in students who stop or drop out.

Curious how a master’s or doctoral program can prepare you to lead in higher education administration?

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