May 18 2016

In the Fight for Retention, Strategy Should Lead the Way

Under pressure to retain and graduate students, smart leaders and savvy tech companies can partner in strategic solutions.

You might say, “Retention is the new enrollment.” It’s an apt articulation of what has become evident in higher education: Year-to-year retention of students and their degree completion are front and center. The surface logic behind this focus is that student attrition hurts the bottom line. It costs more to recruit a new student than to retain one. But there is more to this than prudent financial management.

Colleges are under the gun to prove their value to prospective students, their families, employers and the government. Ultimately, the way to demonstrate real value is to do a better job of educating and graduating students. The key emphasis is on the word “graduating,” because the truth about U.S. higher education is that many start but few finish. The National Student Clearinghouse reports that among the 2.9 million first-time degree seekers who started in the 2009 cohort, just 53 percent completed a degree at any institution within six years. That’s a brand killer for higher education. The sector needs to do a better job of keeping its core promise.

Placing Strategy Before Tech

Smart institutions understand that the only way to address this problem is to understand its complicated causes, engage colleagues in developing a viable strategy for improvement and enlist the right technologies to enact a mission-critical strategy. Often, however, institutions apply technology before developing a sound strategy. It’s understandable to want to quickly tackle a problem that looms so large. Results from a recent Eduventures survey underscore this anxiety. Sixty percent of respondents said their institutions were in the early stages of integrating technology into retention strategies. Yet 88 percent were using an external technology solution in their efforts. Tellingly, 52 percent were satisfied with the tech’s performance in improving year-to-year retention, and 38 percent with its improvement of completion rates. It’s not surprising that institutions with underdeveloped strategy, systems and data integration haven’t achieved desired results.

How can colleges fulfill their promise more effectively? Higher education must take a deep breath and ensure that coherent strategy comes first. Technology has two roles herein supporting strategy: to investigate and diagnose causes and to enact strategy.

The implication for institutions is that administrators must work closely with IT to find the appropriate use of technology in developing and rolling out a retention strategy. Within that collaboration, institutions must assess their systems and available technology, capacity to develop and maintain related technology, and needs that might require an outside vendor.

The implication for tech companies with retention solutions is that they must shift their mindset from vendor to partner. Instead of leading the sales pitch with product features, integrations, support and total cost of ownership, companies should develop a strategy-based approach that shows empathy for the depth and complexity of the problem and a desire to be a useful part of the institution’s collaborative effort. The other pieces are important, but they should be set within the context of the problem.

Remembering That Outcomes Matter

This is a tougher — but hopefully more rewarding — approach for all parties. Ed tech companies must be sensitive to justifiable concerns that colleges have about ceding their core responsibilities to outsiders. They also must be diligent about developing solutions that will work within the context of each partner institution. In this model, retention solutions must show efficacy through outcomes, not merely usage.

No one entity can go it alone to untie the Gordian knot of better student retention and completion. IT, faculty and administrators should collaborate on campus and engage the right-fit external resources to create a strong institutional retention strategy.


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