Three college student retention strategies that planning teams should prioritize at this time of year



October is a prime time for retention planning—how are you assessing 2013-14?

October is a prime time for college student retention planning—how are you assessing 2013-14?

It’s that time of year when retention committees, student success professionals, and leadership teams all across the country calculate the retention rate for the fall 2013 cohort and compare it with their previous years’ outcomes. Some campuses have undoubtedly stayed the same, others decreased, and some increased, but the overall conversation is usually about how “it” can be done better for the fall 2014 class.

Let’s talk about “it” for a minute. Many of you may have read in a previous post that I don’t believe any of you get up in the morning and go to work to do retention. Retention isn’t what you do. “It” is an outcome of what you do. “It” is the result of quality faculty, staff, programs and services. As you consider improvements to your efforts which will impact the fall 2014 entering class and beyond, please keep in mind the following three student retention strategies and practices.

1. Assess college student retention outcomes completely

The first strategy I want you to consider is comprehensive outcomes assessment. All colleges and universities compute a retention rate at this time of year because it has to be submitted via the IPEDS system as a part of federal requirements. But many schools go above and beyond what is required and compute other retention rates to inform planning purposes. For example, at what rates did you retain special populations or students enrolled in programs designed to improve student success? In order to best understand what contributed to the overall retention rate, other outcomes have to be assessed as well. For instance, how many students persisted but didn’t progress? Before you finalize the college student retention strategies for your fall 2014 students, be sure that you know how your 2013 students persisted and progressed so that strategies can be developed in advance. An example would be a targeted, intrusive, and intentional academic recovery program that happens in spring and summer terms for instance. My friends at Cardinal Stritch University do this very well.
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How does a 3 percent increase in college student retention add up financially?


Is your campus experiencing retention inertia? Do you struggle to find campuswide support and resources to meet your retention goals?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, I hope you can also say with all honesty that no one on your campus is grumbling about reduced funding or tighter budgets? Ah, I thought not. So what’s the connection?

Improving student retention, simply put, is one of the most dependable ways to generate millions of dollars in additional revenue at large institutions and hundreds of thousands of dollars even at very small institutions.

Examples: Estimated net revenue gains from a three percent increase in first-to-second-year retention

Consider the following three examples, each based on a three percent gain in retention:

Assumes 1.5 retention factor on sophomores to graduation.

Assumes 1.5 retention factor on sophomores to graduation.


Net revenue includes state subsidies; 1.5 retention factor on sophomores to graduation.

Net revenue includes state subsidies; 1.5 retention factor on sophomores to graduation.


Net revenue includes state subsidies; 1.0 retention factor of sophomores to graduation.

Net revenue includes state subsidies; 1.0 retention factor of sophomores to graduation.


How did we produce these examples? The math was fairly simple. For instance, in the first example, we calculated the number of additional second-year students that would be gained from the three percent increase in first-to-second-year retention (going from 80 percent retention to 83 percent):

80% retention rate: 300 incoming students X .80 = 240 students
83% retention rate: 300 incoming students X .83 = 249 students

This yielded a gain of nine students. We then multiplied the difference, nine, by the average net revenue per student ($15,000) and by a 1.5 retention factor to graduation. The examples for four-year public and two-year public follow the same formula.

Note: The examples do not take into consideration any changes in tuition or the costs of educating the additional students who persist. The revenue is not “net, net.” However, the marginal cost of educating each additional unit of enrollment is far less than the average cost of all enrollment units.

Share this with your Provost, CFO, and others to win support for additional retention initiatives this fall

The above estimates show that even modest improvements in retention make a big difference in revenue. We encourage you to share the examples with colleagues. Investing in retention programming is good business. Few, if any, other institutional investments will yield such a high return. Too often, increasing retention is not recognized as one of the most effective ways to add full-time equivalents, thereby broadening an institution’s revenue base.

In addition, retention improvements can happen relatively quickly. Noel-Levitz has helped campuses achieve an improvement of 3 to 5 percent in their retention rate within one year through aggressive strategy implementation.

Get a quick estimate of your institution’s student retention revenue with our auto-calculating worksheet

To quickly estimate retention revenue for your institution, use Noel-Levitz’s Retention Revenue Estimator. All you need to do is enter the number of additional second-year students you expect to gain (or “save”) and your average annual net revenue per student. If you don’t have the net revenue figure, ask your finance office to provide it.

For more help with accurately estimating retention revenue for your institution, or to discuss your retention strategy with a retention expert, we invite you to email or call us at 1-800-876-1117 for a complimentary consultation by phone.

What makes college student mentoring programs successful?



Student engagement is essential to student success and student outcomes, and mentoring programs is one example of an initiative that can create a student-focused culture.

Student engagement is essential to student success and student outcomes, and mentoring programs are one example of an initiative that can create a student-focused culture.

Over the course of the spring and summer months, I had the opportunity to attend and present at several of the state and national private and career school conferences including the Arizona Private School Association (ASPA), the Association of Private Schools and Universities (APSCU), and the Northwest Career College Federation (NWCCF). It is always great to connect and share information with other educators in the private post-secondary sector. The tone of the conferences was set by the concern of the legislative issues that affect the sector, and many of the sessions focused on recruitment, compliance, assessment, quality educational outcomes, and employment outcomes for graduates. You can find my presentations and other resources for private and post-secondary schools at the Noel-Levitz website.

In my interactions with many of the attendees, I was interested in the best practices and takeaways for increasing student success and ultimately graduate outcomes. One of the most interesting topics concerned mentoring college students. We know from research that college mentoring programs can positively affect student success and graduate outcomes (Rhodes, 2008). However, in my experience, mentoring programs have some difficulty getting support and sustainability with private post-secondary schools. In one of my presentations a group shared their best practices, and I was particularly impressed with a mentoring program at Sumner College in Oregon. Sumner College is a private post-secondary school that uses mentoring to impact retention and graduate success, and that program has helped it achieve a 90 percent student retention rate. Carlie Jones, the director of operations at Sumner College who helped establish the mentoring program, described how it came together because of the joint efforts of the college’s student services department and the faculty and staff. She also made it clear that the program’s success would not be possible without the support and leadership from Sumner’s president, who personally mentored over a dozen students within a year. Sumner College has multiple campuses and is still small enough to be flexible within the parameters of the mentoring program. Key elements of the program include:

  • All students (mentees) are assigned a mentor (faculty or staff, including the college president).
  • Students are matched randomly with their faculty and staff mentors, which helps avoid conflicts of interest within their programs of study.
  • Mentor and mentee assignments happen at orientation, so students begin the mentoring program as soon as possible. They can also change their assignments at any time based on the connection between the mentor and mentee.
  • Mentors are trained and required initially to be in contact with mentees once a week, but they can adjust the frequency based on the needs of the mentee.

It is apparent that the efforts of the mentoring program affected student success and graduate completion rates, but moreover it reinforced the culture of student engagement. Interestingly, the success stories that Carlie shared involved the students’ academic and social preparedness and how mentoring influenced students’ lives by connecting them with resources to make them successful throughout the student life cycle.
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Six steps for optimizing search keywords for college webpages


Co-written with Jennifer Croft. Jennifer is an SEO consultant with 30 years of marketing experience who has worked on more than 500 websites, including 50 higher education websites.

Over the past 20 years, search engine optimization (SEO) has transformed how organizations can get users to their web pages via search engines. Many successful strategies, metrics, and tools have been developed to help colleges and universities connect web visitors to relevant webpages. At its core, though, SEO is still all about keywords—the words and phrases users type into Google and other search engines to find links to websites. Each time someone types a search query, the search engine strives to understand the intent of the words, search a giant library of trillions of webpages, and deliver the most relevant results (all in a split second).

How does the engine know which links to put at the top of the search results? By matching the user’s query to the keywords on those webpages. To get your institution’s pages to the top of the search engine results, you need to understand how to choose the most effective keywords and where to put them on the page for maximum SEO impact.

We discussed some key strategies in our SEO 101 blog. The following six steps can further help you research and execute an optimal SEO strategy for your institution’s webpages.

1) Conduct keyword research

To attract the most clicks to your school’s website, you’ll need to include the words and phrases on your webpages that prospective students are most likely to type into a search engine. For example, few people search for “accountancy degree,” but thousands search for “accounting degree.” The keyword phrase “law and society degree,” is rarely used, whereas “criminal justice degree” is one of the most popular degree search terms. Sometimes the difference between a popular and unpopular term can be just a few characters, but without researching you’ll never know.

By performing keyword research, you can uncover the most popular phrases. You can also use keyword research to:
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Are you overlooking the needs of your second-year college students?


Incoming freshmen deserve great attention. They are making a challenging transition to college, and they are highly vulnerable to attrition. But second-year student retention should not be overlooked as classes get under way this fall, especially as their attrition rates nationally range between 16-19 percent by the end of the second year.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a significant gap in campus programming across higher education between the first and second years according to data in the Noel-Levitz Student Retention and College Completion Practices Report:

In many ways, the needs of second-year students may simply be “carry over” of the unmet needs of freshmen. For example, while nearly 70 percent of incoming freshmen want help selecting an educational plan, Noel-Levitz research shows that nearly 60 percent of returning, second-year students (still) wanted help preparing a written academic plan for graduation.
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Building paths for students to enroll and persist


Are you creating clear pathways, free of obstacles, for students to enroll and persist?

On a campus in the Midwest, there is a popular new walking path that is guiding students in new directions in order to view the natural beauty of the campus’s tree-rich perimeter. By adding the new path, the institution changed its students’ habits, added an attraction, and overcame obstacles that were getting in the way of exploration.

Have you considered the power of path-building for student enrollment? Is your institution’s enrollment team intentionally building pathways that guide students in the directions you want? By building intentional, well-marked paths, prospective and current students are more likely to step past obstacles, respond to your requests, and become more engaged with your institution.

At Noel-Levitz, we’ve seen campuses build big paths that work for lots of students as well as smaller paths that work for priority subgroups and individual paths that serve particular student circumstances. The most important thing to remember is that good paths begin where students are at.

Trailheads and stepping stones
Placing strategic trailheads for students to enter an enrollment path is a critical first part of enrollment path-building. Are there new places or areas where you should be placing trailheads? For prospective students, do you offer innovative academic and extracurricular programs, online or on campus, that connect them to your institution or put them in contact with your current students? For incoming students, have you placed clear trailheads to career development, academic support, and venues for building relationships with others? For all students, are you in touch with the needs of key subgroups?

After the trailhead, the best paths provide students with appropriately-timed and placed “stepping stones” that gradually guide students into a deeper commitment to your institution and to their career goals. For example, to encourage students to visit campus—which for many prospective students is a big step forward—a path-builder must begin with smaller steps of little to no commitment and provide lots of options. For instance, the path toward visiting might begin with a face-to-face conversation with a current student, a social media experience, or seeing a campus video.

So how, exactly, can you identify the best paths, trailheads, and stepping stones? Examining past “foot traffic” on existing paths is effective, as is asking students directly. In reality, a single “path” might be a series of paths and obstacles upon looking closer. Effective path-building involves testing new approaches, minimizing obstacles, and gradually guiding students to make smaller choices that eventually build up to the bigger choices to enroll and re-enroll.
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New research on student emotions in college choice: Part II


Co-written with Pamela Lee, Market Research Consultant, Noel-Levitz

Read Part I here.

In the first part of this two-part blog, we discussed how we found that half of college-bound high school students we surveyed expressed negative emotions over the college choice process—stress, anxiety, confusion, and other negative feelings. This second part will discuss additional findings we uncovered as we dove deeper into the data.

The role of a campus visit on student emotions during the college choice process

Female students were more likely to express feelings of anxiety and stress during the college search process than male students.

Does a campus visit create stress or relieve it? To find out, we asked students “Have you visited any campuses to learn more about attending those colleges?

Campus visits appeared to intensify student emotions, both positive and negative. Students who visited a campus were more likely to be excited and relieved than those who did not—provided the visit was an affirming one. As one student said, “When I visited the campus, it made me feel calm.”

If the visit was non-affirming, however, the student became even more stressed than before. This suggests that immediate follow-up with visiting students is critical in order to determine the impression the institution has made—to reinforce if positive and to mitigate if not.

We explored various groups of students in their likelihood to visit college campuses and found the following results:

  • Females were more likely than males to visit.
  • High-income students were more likely than others to visit.
  • Higher GPA students were more likely to visit.
  • Among seniors, Caucasian students were more likely to visit; first-generation students were less likely to visit.

Other differences among groups

Our original hypothesis was that getting an early start on college planning (eighth grade or before) would make the entire process less stressful for students and their families. But the data showed that early college planning is not related to students’ reporting of positive vs. negative emotions. We now theorize that early planners are often doing so with the encouragement of parents who may have high expectations for their son or daughter’s school choice. The reported stress may represent the added pressure many high achievers often face.

Continue reading “New research on student emotions in college choice: Part II” »

New research on student emotions in college choice: Part 1


Co-written with Pamela Lee, Market Research Consultant, Noel-Levitz

This is the first of a two-part series. Read Part II here.

How do human beings make decisions? Neuroscience tells us that humans have both a logical, conscious “system” and a non-logical, unconscious “system” that provide input as we make decisions. We like to think of ourselves as highly logical creatures, but in fact our choices represent a mysterious blend of influences. Many researchers suggest that the subconscious is actually the dominant driver of human decision-making. (Here’s one study on the subject.)

On the topic of college choice by traditional-age students, the logical factors have been well researched. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, Noel-Levitz, and other organizations have investigated top student choice factors such as institutional location, academic reputation, available majors, cost and financial aid, educational outcomes, faculty teaching and credentials, and enrollment size.

Why emotions matter in college student choice

Given what science says about decision making, enrollment managers need to understand—and respond to—what students are feeling as well as what they are thinking. To ignore this key component of student choice would render our understanding incomplete.

We know anecdotally that emotions play a significant role in the college decision. How often have you heard a student use emotionally charged language such as?

“I fell in love with the campus.”
“It just felt right.”
“I knew I would belong here.”

This research study shows just how completely the decision process is awash in emotions such as excitement, anxiety, stress, and hope.

How we studied the emotions and college choice

For this study, Noel-Levitz was invited to include questions in NRCCUA’s “Mapping the College Search” survey, deployed online in January 2014. Our quantitative sample included 5,240 students who expected to graduate between 2014-17 and who also planned to attend four-year institutions, community colleges, or technical/career colleges. In addition, we completed 16 qualitative follow-up queries to explore specific emotions in more detail and add “color” to our research.

The study revolved around this central question we posed to students:
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Privacy concerns among prospective college students and their parents


The explosion of digital marketing, social media, and the sharing of information online has triggered many concerns about privacy among prospective college students. Social media outlets in particular have fueled privacy concerns that are only likely to increase as campuses consider platforms like Snapchat to recruit students.

As part of the 2014 E-Expectations study, we asked students and their parents about privacy issues during the recruitment process. The table below shows the percent who said they were concerned or extremely concerned about the following privacy issues.

These concerns do not necessarily interfere with students providing information. For instance, while 52 percent said they had privacy concerns about providing their name and email address, 96 percent of students in the E-Expectations study said they had provided prospective colleges with an email address during their college search process. On the other hand, while the number of students who said they visited a college Facebook page jumped from 41 percent in the 2013 study to 51 percent this year, the number who “liked” a Facebook page fell from 53 percent to 36 percent.

Regarding social media, many campuses do appear to check on the content prospective students post to social media. We asked campuses about this practice in our 2014 E-Recruiting Practices Report, and here’s what they said:
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A student’s perspective on four benefits of a residential college experience


My daughter Kylie currently attends a Midwest, residential, liberal-arts college. I asked her to add her observations about her first year to Jeffrey Selingo’s benefits of attending a residential college.

Jeffrey Selingo, the author of College (Un)Bound, was a keynote speaker at our Noel-Levitz National Conference in Chicago in July. He had a lot of great observations on today’s world of higher education. In particular, he highlighted four benefits of a residential college experience, which resonated with me since my daughter Kylie is about to start her sophomore year at a Midwest, residential, liberal-arts college. You may have been following my blog series on Kylie’s experiences through the college search process, orientation and move-in, and my own observations on the parent communications I received during her freshman year.

These are Jeffrey Selingo’s four benefits of a residential college experience, and I asked Kylie to reflect on her first year within the context of his observations. If you are affiliated with a residential college serving traditional students, you may want to consider how you are highlighting and promoting similar experiences that your students may be having.

Benefit 1: Offering faculty as mentors to students

Kylie felt that building on relationships with her faculty members from the very beginning was essential and that she was able to build strong relationships with many faculty members during her first year. She appreciated the opportunity to get to know her faculty advisor. He was the first faculty member she met during orientation and he also taught her section of her required freshman seminar course, further developing their relationship. For her other courses, Kylie liked that they were smaller, discussion-oriented classes rather than lecture style. Through these classroom discussions, and by taking advantage of meetings with the professors during office hours, she got to know the faculty. Kylie shared that she was able to bond with the faculty members as they gained a better understanding of her values and beliefs. She expects that these relationships will continue to grow during her sophomore year.

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