Institutions and educators need students in order to stay in business, students want to reap all the benefits high-quality education has to offer, and society as a whole is better off with an educated population. Everyone would like to see higher student retention rates, but what, exactly, does the term mean in a practical sense?
When we think of student retention, we might initially think in terms of “graduates versus dropouts.” This may be a useful way to think about it if you’re an administrator at a typical 4-year university with an extremely low transfer rate, no non-degree seeking students, and a student population that faces little in the way of non-school related responsibilities. But what if that’s not you? What if your students aren’t so much “dropping out” of school as they are transferring to another program or taking time off? What if many of your students enroll in your courses to meet professional development requirements with no intention of completing a degree? What if many of your students have full-time jobs and caregiving responsibilities?
An 18-year-old supported by their parents enrolled in a 4-year college is likely to have very different challenges related to staying in school than an adult learner seeking to make a career change. Likewise, an administrator at a traditional 4-year college is likely to think of retention much differently than an educator in a professional development program.
While both the professional development educator and the four-year institution might benefit from the early identification of at-risk students, they would likely not define the same students as “at-risk.” Being on track for degree completion might be the benchmark by which the 4-year institution measures retention whereas the professional development educator might simply define retention as completing their course.
Retention strategies like offering increased flexibility to accommodate for job and childcare responsibilities might benefit the professional development educator greatly but do comparatively little for the traditional four-year institution. Conversely, developing new majors to compete with other institutions and a robust first-year onboarding and support program might greatly improve the traditional four-year institution’s student retention rates yet be nearly irrelevant to the professional development educator.
Both educational institutions and learners have a wide variety of characteristics and goals. The key takeaway is that these goals need to be defined thoughtfully and purposefully so that you can measure what you value. Meaningful student retention rates can be tracked, data-driven solutions adopted, and interventions implemented that target the reasons for non-completion specific to your educational goals. Clearly defining those goals is critical to ensuring success.
Interested in learning more about drilling down on a customized, actionable definition of student retention for your institution? Check out our eLearning experts’ deep dive into Retention.
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