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4 tips to increase student retention

10 min read
Every touchpoint students have with your institution forms their educational experience and gives you an opportunity to improve student retention.


Student retention is a top concern for colleges and universities. For a wide variety of reasons, college and university students leave without finishing their degree. Students enter school with a lot of expectations. Expectations about their classes and what they’ll learn, about their social lives and the people they’ll meet, about the challenges they’ll face and how they’ll succeed. When those expectations are not met, students are likely to leave.

What is student retention?

Put simply, student retention is the return rate from one year to another among student cohorts. This can be measured by tracking the number of students who enroll at the beginning of one school year to the number of students who enroll the following year. For example, you might have 10,000 freshmen during one given school year. The next year, you would have 9,000 sophomores, showing a 80% student retention rate for sophomores.

Student retention rate = # of students who enroll the following year or semester / # of students who enroll

Why is student retention important?

The primary goal of any educational institution is to help students graduate and enter the workforce. Student retention is an important metric to measure that success. In addition, increasing student retention helps to provide an effective source of income for institutions through tuition revenue. At public institutions, state funding and institutional budget amounts are often tied to enrollment and retention numbers.

What are drivers of student retention?

As we’re learning, many factors contribute to a student’s decision to stay or leave. By focusing effort on improving student engagement, student satisfaction, and student persistence; colleges are more likely to improve student retention overall.

1.  Student Engagement

Many institutions have crafted their own definitions of student engagement. What engagement means for each student and each institution may vary to some degree, but they all have one thing in common: the focus on student engagement as a proxy for educational quality and a driver of student retention and student persistence.

In the 1980s, the National Institute of Education’s report Involvement in Learning defined two “fundamental principles about the conditions of educational excellence everywhere:”

  1. Student learning is directly proportional to the quality and quantity of student involvement; and
  2. The quality of any educational policy or practice is directly related to its capacity to increase student involvement.

In the 1990s, Vince Tinto’s Leaving College synthesized wide-ranging research on college student attrition. He concluded that the more students are involved socially and intellectually, and the more frequently they connect with faculty and other students, the more they are likely to learn.

It turns out, this holds true for students of all ages. In K-12, engaged students are 2.5 times more likely to say that they get excellent grades and do well in school and 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than their actively disengaged peers (Gallup).

Gallup has been studying engagement for decades, having completed tens of millions of surveys and several meta-analyses, all finding that engagement is a measurement of how involved, enthusiastic and committed one is to an organization. For students, they say, the question is: “What is your psychological relationship with the school?” The challenge lies in the corollary question, “How do you know?”

One way institutions try to answer these questions is by measuring student satisfaction.

2. Student satisfaction

While student engagement focuses on student behaviors, student satisfaction focuses on the student’s perceptions and opinions about the quality of institutional services, facilities, and amenities.

A broad body of research shows that satisfaction breeds loyalty. Satisfied students are more loyal to your institution in appreciable ways: they are more likely to engage with alumni activities, more likely to maintain an ongoing relationship with their alma mater, and more likely to recommend your institution to others.

While satisfaction may not drive the same educational outcomes as student engagement, a lack of satisfaction can certainly drive students away.

3. Student persistence

When thinking about persistence, it’s important for institutions to understand what motivates students to persist and what experiences they are looking for when they invest in your school.  According to Tinto’s theory of student departure, students need integration into formal (academic performance) and informal (faculty/staff interactions) academic systems and formal (extracurricular activities) and informal (peer-group interactions) social systems.

By taking the time to understand how student experiences shape a student’s motivation to persist, universities can figure out ways in which they can enhance that motivation, open doors and create a sense of belonging whether the students are on campus or online.

4 ways to improve student retention

Now that we’ve defined the key drivers of retention, let’s take a look at practical ways universities can better understand student experiences and improve retention.

1. Unlock student success with Big Data

Since 1870, the federal government has collected data about American higher education. From basic statistical bean-counting, educational research has evolved into Big Data – including a myriad of models and techniques, all aimed at understanding how well institutions are serving students. Today, the innumerable NCES dashboards and publications are augmented on campus with institutional data of every color and stripe, including regularly-collected student feedback data. Using this data, institutions can spot trends that may impact student retention.

2. Measure student satisfaction

Understanding student satisfaction can help you understand areas where your institution is meeting expectations or missing the mark for your students, which in turn affects student retention.

To collect student feedback, leading institutions administer both student and employee satisfaction surveys in an effort to understand the experiences their students’ have with their institutions. Prevailing wisdom says combining satisfaction with regular pulses of engagement provides a more complete perspective for institutions to consider.

Since 1994, two-year and four-year institutions have used the Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI) to identify students’ sense of the importance and satisfaction with a variety of experiences inside and outside the classroom including instruction from faculty members, academic advising, enrollment management, financial aid, campus life, campus resources, and others.

For more than twenty years, the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Community College Survey on Student Engagement (CCSSE) have asked students to identify the amount of time and effort they put into their studies and other educational activities. These surveys have students assess the ways their institution provides resources, organizes curricula, and encourages students to participate in a variety of activities that have been linked to student learning outcomes. NSSE is administered at four-year institutions; CCSSE is administered at two-year institutions.

3. Leverage always-on course evaluations

Course evaluations are another way for you to gauge how a student feels about their academic work, providing another touchpoint when it comes to understanding student retention. In addition to helping faculty improve their classes, these evaluations help institutional leaders make budget and resource decisions.

Best practice is to evaluate every class, every semester with formative assessment mid-semester, as well as summative assessment at the end. But due to labor-intensive processes, universities and community colleges can only manage so many surveys for all of their classes, all of the time, so they have to default to some of their classes, some of the time.

Course evaluations become an important student touchpoint, allowing you to more readily identify gaps in the learning experience and understand which actions have the biggest impact on experience, engagement, and performance.

4. Turn insights into action

In every case, institutional surveys are just snapshots of data that freeze-frame students’ perceptions of the university at a particular point in time. By stringing these snapshots together, institutions can measure aggregate institutional change over time. But no matter how rigorous the analysis or diligent the institutional response, snapshot data is always a picture of the past, taken to inform the future. These point-in-time surveys ask students to pay it forward, providing feedback on their experiences to improve the experiences and increase student retention rates of the next class.

When these and other benchmarked surveys began, they were cutting-edge educational practice. While these surveys remain relevant today, major advances in technology allow institutions to build on that body of knowledge with deeper, more actionable, real-time insights.

While point-in-time surveys remain relevant today, major advances in technology allow institutions to build on that body of knowledge with deeper, more actionable, and real-time insights.

To make better decisions and drive better outcomes, innovative schools combine both operational and experiential student data for immediacy, specificity, and actionability. Institutions on the forefront are incorporating new tools to understand individual students and deliver experiences that exceed their expectations.

How can Qualtrics help with student retention?

Enter XM for Education, an integrated platform that allows institutions to:

  • Listen + Remember: Students are more than the cohorts they inhabit. Get to know every student individually with always-on listening tools.
  • Process + Understand: Eliminate the experience blindspots. Using all forms of experience data, XM for education helps you understand the emotion, effort, and intent of what students are saying, whenever and wherever they’re saying it so you’ll know exactly what to do to design and improve student experiences.
  • Take Action: Make taking action an automatic response, right across your entire institution.

XM for Education provides the integrated enterprise platform higher education needs to understand and improve student retention, across the entire institution.

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