Student Retention Forumla: P + P = R

railroad track

Retention is about helping each student stay on track.

In the retail industry, it’s all about location, location, location. In the higher education industry, it’s all about retention, retention, retention.  To be clear at the start, maximizing student retention numbers is not about reducing the quality of education in order to pass students (with questionable academic achievement) just to keep them ‘in the loop’. Let’s face it, we all know that some students just aren’t ready for college, and perhaps, may never be, so it’s to be expected that those students will drop out. Here, I’m talking about the thousands of students we all know that have the potential to graduate, yet decide (many times on their own without proper guidance) that dropping out is the best, or only solution, to overcoming all of the obstacles they’ll surely face during the college years. I think many of these students would stay in college if they had someone they felt they could talk to, or know which college services and resources were available to them. I know from personal experience, that many of my students who were at the brink of dropping out, stayed in college because I sent them to talk to someone in counselling services or the financial aid office. This has shown me that it’s all about the ‘human’ connections at the college, not the ‘computer’ connections, that will help keep a student from dropping out. The simple formula for student retention, therefore, is P (People) + P (Processes) = R (Retention).

Let me back up for a minute. When I first decided to write a post about retention, I wondered when all this concern about dropout rates actually started? I found an interesting excerpt from a book, ‘College Student Retention, a Formula for Student Success’ by Alan Seidman. Seidman notes that “the first study on college student retention was conducted in the 1930’s.” (Berger & Lyon 2005). This study, conducted by John McNeely back in 1938 was titled, “College Student Mortality”. “Mortality“? Wow, that’s serious. Personally, I would have perhaps lightened it up a bit and titled it, “College Student Departure“, or something like that; it doesn’t sound so extreme. Then again, I guess it was the 1930’s during the ‘Great Depression‘ when everything seemed ‘doom and gloom’, so maybe ‘mortality’ was the best choice.

So, getting back to the ‘Human connection’, starting with ‘P’ (People), there are several ways that all of us ‘humans’ who work at the college can do our part to minimize this ‘mortality’ rate. Most of these ideas are so simple that it’s really just common sense, but its the kind of common sense that is always good to be reminded of once in a while.

– Profs can make an effort to try to learn as many of their students’ names as possible. If students they feel that they’re ‘just a number’, they’ll not only feel disconnected with the course and the program, but the entire college.

– Students just want to ‘fit in’ somewhere, so when designing courses and programs, try to create a ‘culture’ within each program.

– Every student is important. Tell them that, make them feel that, and promote it within the college (poster campaign).

– Make all students feel comfortable in the classroom environment by having a ‘zero tolerance’ for discrimination of any kind. Make everyone aware of the policies (again, promote it around the college) and enforce it.

– Everyone should give struggling students encouragement; a kind of  “you can do it if you try”approach. Promote this work ethic in the classroom and throughout the college.

– Help students adapt to change. Incorporate a ‘How to deal with change’ component into the curriculum of all first-level courses.

– Employ ‘Student Life Coaches’ that understand the challenges of college life, and who have access and knowledge to all the resources and services available at the college. This person is a ‘hub of knowledge’ for students to talk to, save time, and to know who to talk to that can help them.

– Alumni offices should host regular ‘ALUMNI talks’ (taking a cue from the popular, ‘TED talks’). A great motivator for students is to listen to a successful grad say, “I was sitting there too not long ago…”

– Put up posters of the grad ceremonies, so students can visualize themselves walking across the stage at their own graduation. These should be put up all year, not just during pre-graduation times.

– Ensure course quality. If you have ‘quality’ course content, you will have a quality program, which in turn creates a quality college, in that order. If the course content, and the proper delivery of that content (in-class or online) isn’t built on a strong foundation at the start, the reputation of a whole program starts to crumble, eventually leading to a tarnished reputation for the entire college.

The second ‘P’ is all about ‘Processes’.  Since there are multiple reasons why a student drops out, student retention programs have to involve multiple groups within the college. A retention strategy has to be a collaborative effort between all faculty, management, administration, and students. If a student is thinking of  ‘dropping out’, there should be an automatic response process in place that ‘kicks in’, so that the student is directed to the appropriate resources immediately in hopes that it will prevent him/her from making a hasty or uninformed decision to drop out. We can actually take a lesson from law enforcement (SWAT/ERT teams) that are trained and know exactly what to do, without hesitation, when a situation arises (they have acronyms for everything). In this case, the ‘situation’ could be a students lack of attendance in the early weeks of class or not handing in the first assignment.

This process should not just be sent as a memo in an email (“delete”) either. It should be treated as a campaign. All it would take is to create a simple acronym and flowchart that is easy to remember and follow; everyone in the college ‘link’ knows their role when a situation occurs. I would also add in a catchy slogan that conveys the importance of retention and the ramifications of decreased retention rates. Creating a small poster/flyer that everyone can tack up in their office would be enough (KISS rule). If this process works, maybe then the title of the next report could be ‘College Student Immortality‘?

A couple of final thoughts and ideas. How about creating a non-monetary incentive program designed for profs, based on student retention levels in their courses? Or, maybe create a college-wide student retention contest? How about a part-time ‘greeter’ (take a lesson from Wal-mart) at the main entrance (a volunteer retiree?) to make students feel welcome every time they enter the main entrance?  Another idea, again from the retail industry, is to ‘roll out the red carpet’ at the main entrance? The picture below shows a retailer (London, U.K.) who places a small red carpet in front of their store every morning. Right away, it says to their customer, “you’re a VIP to us!” Wouldn’t using this same idea give off a ‘VIP’ vibe to all students entering the college every morning?

Give each student the red carpet treatment!

There’s the old marketing/customer service lesson in business that applies here.  A business spends a lot of time and effort to get a new customer, but it costs A LOT more to get them back if they leave! It’s no different for a college. A first-time student can be a life-long student for that college, especially now, since the student can take part-time courses and online courses long after they graduate. Retaining a student simply makes good business sense.

What suggestions do you have to minimize the number of student ‘defections’?






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  1. Your suggestion of a “greeter” resonated with me. I entered the college via C-Block on Monday evening after 7pm and was greeted by a very depressing looking lobby with no directional signs in plain view. If I actually felt unwelcome in a College where I worked full time for over 24 years, how would a newcomer feel?