Shifting focus from retention to on-time completion


This blog post was co-authored by Jennifer Wick, vice president at Scannell & Kurz (an affiliate of Ruffalo Noel Levitz)

Perhaps you have seen our new white paper, Navigating the Student Engagement Stream. On page 8 of this paper, we provide up-to-date definitions and examples of key metrics for student retention and college completion, including this one:

As the national completion agenda grows, there are many colleges, universities and other organizations which are moving us to broaden our thinking, and consequently advise you, on how to plan not only for retention but also for on-time completion.  The National Governors Association provides a comprehensive summary of the Common College Completion Metrics nomenclature. Driven by initiatives such as the Scorecard, the Obama administration was developing a College Ratings System, which has recently changed course to providing more consumer information via the College Navigator website.  Complete College America describes five game changers that they will help states implement in order to improve on-time completion rates. Traditional graduation metrics defined as 150 percent or greater, of normal time, do not provide a complete picture.

On-time completion and outcomes are becoming the name of the game
The academic experience has always been an integral influence on retention rates, combined with control of entry characteristics (admissions), the student life experience, and overall engagement. However, with the lens now shifting to not just completion, but on-time completion, quality academic advising and curricular pathways that foster successful persistence in courses that count toward the degree plan must come to the fore. Consequently, while it is critical that retention leadership be able to command the respect of both student life and enrollment professionals, it is essential that responsibility for retention reside where there is direct influence on academic support services and faculty. Ideally, effective collaboration exists between all these areas.

Campus example
We recently worked with an institution whose focus was on improving junior year to on-time graduation rates. Through predictive modeling, we were able to identify statistically significant factors for predicting if students were at risk to not graduate on time. Some important variables included whether or not students had ever been on academic probation, had still yet to declare a major, were commuters, or had a more than a certain amount of unmet need (need minus all grants). Individually, none of these factors are a surprise, but viewed collectively and understanding their relative influence, the institution was able to focus resources on the students who could most benefit. Along with “in-time” intervention, this institution is making longer term investments in enhancements to academic advising and reviewing broader institutional policies surrounding resources designed to keep students on track.

What metrics is your campus using to track retention and completion?
There was an active discussion earlier this month of the shifts toward on-time completion metrics at the 2015 National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing, and Retention. Participants from two-year and four-year campuses shared a variety of approaches. If you haven’t done so recently, perhaps your campus could ask this question: Of the students in the fall 2014 cohort, what percentage will return in fall 2015 who are on-time for completion? To be honest, this may be a difficult question to answer for many of you. We have been focusing on first year retention rates for so many years. We think the environment of accountability is slowly pushing us to add yearly on-time completion rates to our planning efforts.

For some additional, helpful perspective on retention and completion metrics, check out the 2015 Student Retention Indicators Benchmark Report and our just-released 2015 Student Retention and College Completion Practices Benchmark Report (see the metrics for retention and college completion which are listed among 33 internal operations in the Appendix).

Questions? Want to discuss your approach?
Are conversations on your campus shifting from retention to completion? What action steps have you taken? Please share your experiences by commenting, and if you’re having trouble turning talk into action, please contact us at 800.756.7483, ext. 5602, or email.

Is your college website mobile friendly for Google?



Co-written by Jennifer Croft, an SEO consultant with 30 years of marketing experience who has worked on more than 500 websites, including 70 higher education websites.

Google wants every page of every website to be mobile-friendly. The company has been saying that for years, and yet site owners–of large and small sites–have been slow to make the necessary changes to make their sites user-friendly for mobile devices. A few months back, Google upped the stakes when it publicly announced that pages that weren’t mobile-friendly would incur a penalty in its algorithm, potentially pushing the pages down to lower ranking positions in the results that Google delivers to searchers. To prove how serious the issue was, Google started sending “mobile usability issues” notices to webmasters via Google Webmaster Tools.

The algorithm changed on April 21, 2015

As of April 21 this year, any pages that weren’t mobile-friendly were pushed down the ladder of Google search engine ranking positions in favor of pages that were mobile-friendly. But what does that mean exactly?

It’s too early to tell, and it may take months to sort out as Google tweaks the algorithm to continue to provide the best results for its users. For example, a site that has larger font sizes and is easier to read on a smartphone doesn’t mean that it’s the best result for a search query. But how far will a more appropriate page be sent down Google’s rankings if that page is not mobile-friendly?

And what about branded searches? Will users on smartphones who are looking for “XYZ University” be served up pages from other colleges and universities in Google’s results, simply because XYZ University’s site isn’t mobile-friendly?

While it will take time to understand the full impact of the algorithm change, let’s take a look at the potential impact the change could have on traffic to your college or university website.

The potential impact for college websites from Google’s mobile-friendly change

The change in the algorithm will only impact searches performed on smartphones, not on tablets or desktops. If you want to know specifically how much the change could impact your site’s traffic, it’s important to gather a few key pieces of data from your Google Analytics account.
Continue reading “Is your college website mobile friendly for Google?” »

For community and technical colleges, the time is now for enrollment “right-sizing”


Times are changing for community and technical colleges. Following peak enrollments a few years ago during what has been termed the Great Recession, enrollments have been declining steadily for many of the nation’s two-year institutions amid the continued economic recovery. Compounding the problem are changing demographics, flat or declining state and local financial support, increased accountability for student outcomes through performance-based funding, and an extraordinarily competitive marketplace. Together, these forces are prompting a more aggressive and strategic approach by community and technical colleges to attract and retain students.

When we conduct on-campus analyses for two-year institutions looking for enrollment opportunities, we now focus more on enrollment “right sizing” rather than striving to return to peak enrollment levels achieved some five years ago at the height of the economic downturn. Our collaboration and discussions center more on identifying the headcount and full-time equivalent student number that actually provide the desired and necessary level of enrollment, revenue stability, and vitality.

Checklist of 10 questions to assess enrollment opportunities at two-year public colleges

The following questions provide some structure and guidance for two-year institutions that are reviewing current enrollment-oriented approaches and determining the “right” enrollment size for 2016 and beyond: Continue reading “For community and technical colleges, the time is now for enrollment “right-sizing”” »

Finding alternative revenue streams to control tuition, expand diversity, and increase enrollment



In today’s environment, the majority of campuses across the U.S. are looking for ways to keep tuition down as fixed costs continue to increase. Is your campus among them?

To help rein in the rising costs of education, increasing numbers of colleges and universities are turning to the adult, online, and graduate markets to provide alternative revenue, diversification, and growth. However, these markets are relatively young in the world of higher education. For some, they are brand new.

If you are new to the markets of adult, online, or graduate enrollment, you have many things to consider. If your program is existing, how does it compare nationwide? Thanks to the willingness of many of you who responded to a recent poll, Ruffalo Noel Levitz has completed another new benchmarking study—the first devoted to the adult learner.

The new 2015 Adult Learner Marketing and Recruitment Practices Benchmark Report combines its findings across undergraduate and graduate levels, because undergraduate and graduate programs often employ similar practices to recruit adult learners. Nearly 200 institutions participated in this study, creating results that are statistically sound.

By digging into this report, we can learn what are the most effective methods to recruit the adult learner, be they undergraduate, graduate, or online? Which approaches are the most common? How are programs staffed? What is the response time to an inquiry? Do students receive financial aid? Is there a “best practice” that you have used, or perhaps overlooked?

Top 10 most effective practices for generating adult learner inquiries
Let’s start by looking at the top ten most effective practices in generating inquiries from the adult or online learner.  In this study, we asked respondents who had at least one adult-focused degree program to rate both the effectiveness and use of 37 strategies and tactics for generating inquiries. Items most frequently rated as “very effective” appear below:

Click to enlarge.

A practice shown in italics indicates that it was not being used by more than a quarter of institutions within the sector, despite the ratings of effectiveness. If you are not using a practice shown in italics, you may want to consider adopting it on a trial basis.

Face-to-face information sessions—a closer look

Let’s take a closer look at the effectiveness of the practice that received the most “very effective” responses. Below we see that respondents from private institutions and two-year public institutions reported similar use of the information session but assigned it a very different value:

When we look at data in this manner, we may also want to investigate what the private campuses are doing differently to create a different value.

If we look at the data related to “referral progam,” very interesting responses appear.

Research shows us that adults believe other adults. In this case, the private campuses tend to maximize their referral base, while the publics do not. Perhaps this is an opportunity for your campus?

Uncover more opportunities in adult, online, and graduate enrollment
We invite you to explore the report and to dive into the data yourself. You may find that you are under-utilizing a common, valued practice while over-using a less valued practice. You might also discover you are under-resourced. If you have questions or would like to discuss your strategies for developing alternative revenue streams, please contact me by email or call me at 800.876.1117 and I’ll do my best to help.

2015 Adult Learner Marketing and Recruitment Practices Benchmark Report for Undergraduate and Graduate Programs

Top recruitment and retention posts of 2015 so far



So far in 2015, our recruitment and retention experts at Ruffalo Noel Levitz have written on a wide variety of enrollment management and student success topics. Here are eight popular posts in case you missed them.

Four steps that can help colleges reach their enrollment goals late in the cycle
What can your campus do to engage prospective college students late in the recruitment cycle and push them toward enrollment? Here are four strategies that have been proven effective.

P+P=R is the basic formula for student retention
Consultant Dr. Tim Culver explains how progression, along with persistence, is a key metric in tracking student retention rates.

Six ways to create engaging, optimized copy for college web pages
How do campuses begin to strengthen the content of their web pages and maximize the SEO potential of those pages, while keeping them manageable? Our web strategy team offers six strategies.

Three initial considerations for planning and evaluating first-year college student retention programs
How can you be more proactive in planning for incoming students and more timely in responding to students’ needs and requests? We share three recommendations.

The strategic growth matrix for enrollment, and how one college generated a 19 percent gain in first-year students
Consultant Wes Butterfield shares how one small college experienced tremendous gains in enrollment and net revenue in just a single year.

14-point checklist for retaining diverse students at four-year and two-year institutions
College campuses are experiencing significant demographic changes. How can your institution respond and maintain effective retention programs? Start with this 14-point checklist.

Engaging students of color during the recruitment process
Dr. Raquel Bermejo uses the latest student perceptions research to discuss how campuses can better engage increasingly diverse groups of prospective students.

Firing on all cylinders for college transfer student recruitment and retention
As it gets tougher out there, institutions will need to make sure they are “firing on all cylinders” to enroll and retain transfer students. Consultant Jennifer Wick provides examples of best practices.

And be sure to sign up for Strategies, our e-newsletter, which includes the latest posts from the blog, to get the latest insights and research delivered directly to your inbox. Or email us if you have any questions about strategies for student recruitment and success.


Recognizing innovative college student retention programs


Earlier this year, I wrote about why we need to hear about college retention programs that are working. I shared that we have the opportunity to learn from the excellent retention programs that are making a difference in student success across the county. Part of my intention in writing that blog was to encourage institutions to apply for the 2015 Lee Noel and Randi Levitz Retention Excellence Awards (REAs). More than 165 colleges and universities have received this award since the REAs began in 1989, and I am excited to share the three institutions (and their retention programs) that are joining this prestigious list in 2015:

  • University of Central Oklahoma: Operation Degree Completion
  • Edgewood College: Strategic Retention Plan
  • Grand Rapids Community College: FastTrack

A common theme among these programs is the importance of innovation in retention.

Continue reading “Recognizing innovative college student retention programs” »

Three ways wise borrowing for college can benefit students



While college students have to consider the amount of student loan debt they can take on, informed borrowing for college is still one of the best investments they can make.

College affordability is receiving a lot of attention from federal policy makers and the media alike. Student loan borrowing has also become an issue, much of it couched in sensational stories of individual students with huge student loan debt. As a result, students and families are approaching the prospect of borrowing for college with much trepidation and pause, and often are uninformed or ill-advised as to what borrowing may mean for their personal situations. This is where your role as an admissions and financial aid advisor is of key importance in helping a family to sift through the facts and make a decision to invest wisely in a student’s future.

When we look more closely at the issue of student loan indebtedness, very few students actually have the kind of crushing debt that has made headlines in the news. In a February 2015 survey of college-bound high school students and their parents, respondents were asked to estimate the amount of debt a student would accumulate by graduation. They responded with a mean value of $42,033. This is well above the national loan debt average of $28,400 for those obtaining bachelor’s degrees. While that is still a significant amount of debt, many college students graduate with debt levels well below that figure. A recent report for the New York Federal Reserve Bank showed that 40 percent of student borrowers have less than $10,000 in debt and 70 percent have less than $25,000 (Additionally, most parents have saved less than $10,000 for their oldest child’s education.)

Although the economic climate is still difficult for many families, one fact remains true from both politicians and researchers—supporting students to achieve higher education helps them secure gainful employment and growth positions in the workforce, which fosters individual advancement as well as collective advancement for the country as a whole.  And while there have been an increasing number of pundits and politicians questioning the value of college in an era of escalating costs, there are three reasons why informed borrowing for college is still one of the best investments students can make:
Continue reading “Three ways wise borrowing for college can benefit students” »

Call to play: The importance of the phone in recruiting college student athletes



Co-authored with Dr. Linda Hoopes

When recruiting college students, a phone call allows more interaction and personalization than any other communication channel, which increases engagement with the student.

If you work in college or university admissions, you understand the importance of building relationships with prospective students and their parents. These days, social media, phone apps, texting—anything electronic—has overshadowed the traditional phone call as the preferred way to connect. Or has it?

Every year for the last five years Ruffalo Noel Levitz has surveyed high school students—more than 80,000 of them—and their parents to learn their preferences in how colleges communicate with them through the recruitment process (here’s our most recent report). One area we explore is students’ perceptions of the mix of channels institutions are employing to engage them relative to how they would prefer to hear from those institutions.

In examining the responses of students aspiring to participate in intercollegiate athletics compared to non-athletes, we found no significant difference in their preferences—other than when it came to use of the phone.

Student athletes who expressed that participating in a sport was “very important” or “important” in their college selection process demonstrated a stronger preference for hearing from an institution via the phone than did students for whom college athletics was not important. While fewer than one in ten students overall reported hearing from campuses via a phone call, nearly one in five prefer it as a communication channel. For student athletes, 28 percent prefer it (relative to 13 percent for non-athletes.)

Why? Far from being a relic of a bygone recruitment era, a well-executed phone conversation is in many ways more “digital” than today’s e-communications in the sense that it is both intensely interactive and highly engaging. A call provides instantaneous answers and prompt feedback. For a generation that isn’t necessarily willing to see how long it takes you to respond to email—only 2 percent of students who become interested in a school will reach out that way—a good old-fashioned phone call is arguably the most personal and most influential way to reach your audience.

Continue reading “Call to play: The importance of the phone in recruiting college student athletes” »

Why create a 1st through 4th semester plan for college student success and retention?


One of the assumptions operating in higher education is that once college students make it to their second year of enrollment, they are committed to completing their degrees at their current institution. And, yet, the data from the 2015 Student Retention Indicators Report show there continues to be significant attrition after the first year of enrollment:

Source: 2015 Report: Attitudes of Second-Year College Students That Influence College Completion

Now new data from a second report, Attitudes of Second-Year College Students, confirm the problem, showing approximately 16 percent of second-year students at four-year public institutions and 9 percent of second-year students at four-year private institutions are either uncertain about their plans or are planning to transfer as they begin their second year:

College completion plans of second-year college students

Source: 2015 Report: Attitudes of Second-Year College Students That Influence College Completion


But very few institutions have made the commitment to retention programs designed specifically for second-year students:
Source: 2015 Report: Attitudes of Second-Year College Students That Influence College Completion

Institutions will not realize improved graduation rates unless they make changes in how they are attending to the needs of second-year students in addition to what they have been doing for their first-year students. This calls for the creation of a “1st through 4th semester” strategy for student success. Continue reading “Why create a 1st through 4th semester plan for college student success and retention?” »

“Bigger or better” revisited: applicants vs. yield


Based on research by Shari Gnolek of Scannell & Kurz

NACAC’s latest State of College Admission Report  noted the continuing trend of declining yield rates in college admissions.  This trend goes on just as many colleges continue to see increases in application numbers.  In 2013, we published a chart showing changes in application numbers relative to changes in yield, noting that institutions that increased applications were three times more likely to see a decline in yield than to see an increase in yield.

We recently updated these statistics from the Integrated Postsecondary Educations Data System (IPEDS) to show changes from 2012 to 2013.  The latest data reflect a pattern similar to last year’s, showing that schools that experienced an increase in applications from 2012 to 2013 were 2.3 times more likely to see a decline in yield than an increase in yield.

In the chart below, the lower right quadrant displays schools with an increase in the applicant pool from 2012 to 2013 and a decrease in yield.  It is of course possible that these schools may still have managed to enroll a larger freshman class than the year before. However, as we noted last year, a full cost/benefit analysis may show that, factoring in all of the expenses of a larger applicant pool, bigger may not necessarily be better. Wherever new applications are coming from, the key in planning for an increased pool is to understand how the yield from the new source of applicants will differ from what you’re used to seeing.

IPEDS data

(Click to enlarge)

The latest IPEDS data are shown above, based on 872 public and private four-year institutions with 1,000 or more enrolled undergraduates and at least 1,000 applicants in 2013. (Note: separate analyses of public and private institutions show similar patterns, though the risk of decreased yield was slightly higher for publics.)
Continue reading ““Bigger or better” revisited: applicants vs. yield” »

Click to learn more about the report

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Dr. Tim Culver