The student retention champion’s checklist: 7 strategies for increasing college student success

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Co-written with Kathy Kurz

The checklist below will provide some food for thought about not only what you should be doing to increase persistence, but about the responsibilities of your college student retention champion.

Kathy Kurz served as vice president of Scannell & Kurz before her retirement. She has extensive experience in retention programs and strategic financial aid, and served at the University of Rochester and Earlham College.

Although you are at the very beginning of a new school year, we suspect many of you are already thinking about retention, especially if fewer students returned than anticipated. But for many campuses, it’s not clear who should be the one leading that thinking.

Time and again during the course of retention best practice reviews, we find that the institution has not appointed a retention “champion.” Numerous individuals from enrollment, student affairs, and academic leadership may be working on various aspects of retention, and there may even be a retention committee or task force, but there is no clear, integrated vision for retention strategies informed by data. In this scenario, because retention is everyone’s responsibility, in effect it becomes no one’s responsibility.

A concerted effort from all parts of the institution is needed for a successful retention program, but because we all know what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, assigning a retention champion is critical to keeping the community focused on the most impactful retention efforts. Typically this champion would also have supervisory responsibility for those areas that are most critical to retention outcomes at the institution. For example, at many institutions, academic success is critical to persistence. Consequently, the retention champion should have supervisory responsibility for all academic support services.

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Information architecture for college websites: Getting student web visitors on the path to enrollment

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If you have worked in higher education for any amount of time, you’re familiar with the difficulty of navigating campus—whether it be due to poor wayfinding or less than ideal processes that send students from office to office to complete a simple task like getting registered—what is referred to as “campus runaround”

There’s another common occurrence of runaround that can turn off prospective students from enrolling: campus website runaround, where students zip from page to page trying to find the information they need as they consider your school.

This online runaround is often the result of poor information architecture.  Information architecture is one of the most foundational and many times overlooked tools to steer prospects to your desired end locations. Information architecture may seem tedious and repetitive (especially in higher education were campus sites can be very large), but it plays a crucial role in the perception of a campus website. And for many students and parents, their perception of your website can affect their perception of your institution.

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Flipping college marketing communications with prospective students

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To engage prospective college students, you have to promote true interaction, not just an invitation to learn more about your institution.

Colleges spend enormous amounts of money, time, and resources communicating with students through campus marketing. But are all those communications presented in a way that resonates with how today’s students learn and process information?

From the research we have conducted, the answer appears to be no. We have conducted many focus groups with prospective college students, sharing with them examples of college communication. In one instance, we showed them a brochure that had a question on the front—a question that they found thought-provoking and interesting. They looked inside, where the brochure proceeded to describe the experience of being a student at the college and the benefits of attending.

Here’s where we lost them: they wanted to know how they could answer the question that was asked on the front.

This example illustrates the change in how students learn today, and how they want to interact with campuses. After doing extensive research on current pedagogical and instructional strategies, we have discovered that adopting a flipped learning paradigm is the right step—or rather the right “flip”—for your communication strategy.

What is flipped learning and how has it changed how students process information?

There has been a revolution in student learning. Long gone are the days of the lecturing teacher and the passively listening students who were expected to absorb the lessons. Students need to be—and desire to be—engaged in debate and interaction for the content to stick. Enter flipped learning, a teaching concept that prioritizes student engagement.

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Is your retention committee broken? Here are seven ideas that may help

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Recently we released the 2015 Student Retention and College Completion Practices Benchmark Report. For those of you who contributed to these ratings, thank you. For those thinking about contributing in the future, we are always open to hearing what you think should be asked in the poll. We try to think of everything but understand there are always ideas you have which aren’t included. Send them our way please.

You will see six highlights on page one of the report which describe the information you told us. These highlights include effective practices for student success and retention management, the influence of performance-based funding, graduation rate trends, and, finally, your assessment of your written retention plans.

Why are so many retention plans inadequate?
How you assessed the quality of your current retention plan is what I’d like to talk about today. These findings appear on page seven of the report:

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In addition, the quality of the retention committee (not shown here) had similarly low ratings, with just 58.2 percent, 43.6 percent, and 31.2 percent of respondents from the three sectors rating their committee’s quality good or excellent.

What might this really mean? Do these low ratings have something to do with another item which was asked on the poll? Respondents whose institutions had a retention committee were asked to choose the best response from the three options below to describe the committee’s role: (You can see the results on pages 16, 24, and 32.)

Click image to expand.

The third choice had the highest agreement percentage across all sectors (four-year private, four-year public, and two-year public). The second choice had the next-highest agreement percentage while the first choice had the lowest agreement among respondents across all sectors. It appears that nearly 58 percent of four-year private committees, 49 percent of four-year public committees, and 61 percent of two-year public committees simply meet to share information.
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Essentials for retention planning—a video for campus retention committees

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Dr. Tim Culver, the retention leader of Ruffalo Noel Levitz, recently presented a 45-minute webinar on the essentials of student retention planning for higher education.  The recording appears below:

This webinar discussion provides a helpful overview of retention planning from a theoretical and practical standpoint.

Topics covered in this webinar include but are not limited to:

  • How is retention defined by colleges and universities?
  • Who should be included on a campus retention committee?
  • How can campus retention professionals take a data-informed, analytical approach to retention to determine which students drop out and why?

The webinar was presented as part of Bay Path University’s Hot Topics Lecture Series in April 2015.

Questions about retention planning?

If you are interested in how you can build a stronger retention plan, please email us and we will have one of our retention consultants get in touch with you.

Putting more “grit” in college admissions: Going beyond test optional

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What should campuses consider before going “test optional” in college admissions?

Over the last 10 years or so, the test optional movement has been growing.  Currently, more than 30 percent of institutions that grant bachelor’s degrees are test optional, meaning students can choose whether or not to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their admissions applications.  We’ve worked with many institutions over the years that have made the switch, and we have learned a few things along the way:

  • The next year after going test optional, about 20 percent of admits do not submit test scores for use in admission decisions.
  • Average SAT/ACT scores increase for the students who want their scores included in the admissions decision, but average SAT/ACT goes down when looking at total submissions (including those not used for admissions decisions).
  • Newly test-optional institutions need to pay close attention to retention when moving in this direction, as a dip in retention rates is fairly common.

It’s also very important to note that the true impact of test-optional admissions is hard to measure because some changes, such as SAT increases, could be related to other strategies or changes (alterations in aid policies, for example), and may not be completely the direct result of going test optional.

One of our partners—Temple University—recently made the transition to test-optional, along with some other interesting initiatives, and has had great results, especially with increasing ethnic diversity. (You can read a good summary here.)

Campuses can also try a variety of approaches with going test optional. Some institutions may require a test score submission for students to qualify for top merit awards but allow students to qualify for lower-level merits through GPA alone.  Others award all merit levels solely using GPA criteria.
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Creative approaches for demonstrating a college’s return on investment

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Prospective college students and their families want to see how their investment in a college education will pay off.

For a column I published in University Business magazine, I pulled together some information about creative approaches to demonstrating an institution’s return on investment (ROI).  Many schools, like Wesleyan University (CT), are promoting efforts to reduce the cost of a degree.  These and other programs that are designed to address concerns about affordability can make a compelling case for a college’s ROI.

Colleges and universities are also mining student outcomes data as they become increasingly aware of the need to articulate their value proposition.  Prospective students and their families are looking for detailed answers to questions like:

  • What do business graduates, education graduates, science graduates, and so on from your college do after graduation?
  • What companies hire them?
  • What are graduates’ starting salaries?
  • What aspects of the educational experience prepared them best for their careers?

Make outcomes data a part of your ROI process

The days are long gone when schools could send out an alumni survey every five years, get a 15 percent response rate, and satisfy themselves that they knew what their alumni were doing.  The need to provide detailed graduate outcomes data within every major requires comprehensive survey efforts and high “knowledge rates” – i.e., survey responses supplemented by follow-up phone calls, mining of social media, etc.  The University of Northern Iowa has been involved in preliminary testing of a cooperative venture with state workforce development staff to collect outcomes data for nearly 100 percent of graduates.

As career services offices, alumni affairs, institutional research, and academic departments become increasingly effective at collecting outcomes data, the burden shifts to summarizing the information and making it available to the public.  Congress and the White House are both promoting programs to require colleges and universities to publish more graduate outcomes data.  There are also a number of state-level and commercial responses to these calls for greater transparency in outcomes information.

The other change required by this movement is to make academic department websites more outward-directed. Historically, departments saw their sites as primarily serving faculty and student majors in the department and possibly currently-enrolled students who had not yet declared a major. But a recent E-Expectations survey (report coming in fall 2015) found that almost 60 percent of high school juniors searching for information on colleges skipped institutions’ home pages and instead searched on a combination of college name + major. This puts increased pressure on departmental pages to serve a marketing function for the institution. And it’s not a one-shot effort. Outcomes information–the kind of data described above and stories about recent graduates that bring the statistics to life–must be constantly updated to keep the information fresh.

For more details on innovative approaches to demonstrating your institution’s return on investment, see my column for University Business. And please feel free to send me your questions or comments about how you can express ROI for your degrees.

Shifting focus from retention to on-time completion

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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.
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Is your college website mobile friendly for Google?

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

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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”” »

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E-mail Jennifer Wick
Jennifer Wick