According to reports from the National Student Clearinghouse, only 53 percent of the 2.9 million first-time degree seekers who started in 2009 completed a degree at any institution within six years. Waning retention in recent years has prompted some institutions to investigate solutions from unaffiliated edTech companies. While these solutions can provide positive results initially, to increase retention consistently from year to year, a more holistic approach may be necessary.
— Kim Reid via EdTech Magazine
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.
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.
Technology has two roles here in 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.
Remembering That Outcomes Matter
This is a tougher — but hopefully more rewarding — approach for all parties. Ed tech companies 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.
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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