Failed Test - Grade FFor the hundreds of small, private colleges and universities that enroll large numbers of “at-risk” students, proactive retention activities are necessary to keep the school solvent. However, while maintaining retention is much discussed, it is rarely addressed in any productive way that sees results. How should schools improve student retention?

Too many institutions focus, instead, on trying to recruit “better” students. Colleges have been trying to enroll students with greater ability to pay and higher test scores and grade point averages for years. While there is nothing wrong with seeking to enhance the student profile, in the meantime, it is more important to conduct business in a manner that recognizes the characteristics of the students actually enrolled.

Leaders can do a number of things to increase retention rates. These ideas do not require massive investments, major curricular change or significant political risk. They are straight-forward tactics that have proven to be beneficial at small colleges and universities:

1. Introduce a more realistic financial aid packaging strategy that students can pay.

Base your packaging policy and discount target on the population you currently enroll rather than some arbitrary discount rate or on the practices of peer institutions. For example, colleges and universities enrolling large numbers of high-need students are not likely to be able to maintain a 30% discount rate when half of their students are eligible for Federal Pell Grants.

The benefits to realistic packaging are great:

  • It reduces the number of students forced to withdraw due to outstanding balances.
  • It reduces the amount of funds outstanding in accounts receivable each term.
  • In most cases, you are better served with a higher discount rate and larger enrollment than a lower discount rate with empty seats and high receivables.

2. The timing of financial aid packages can also make a difference.

Early packaging for both new and returning students allows sufficient time for financial planning on the part of students and their families. Students packaged over the summer, for example, have little time for financial planning and this often translates into attrition.

3. Check outstanding balances four weeks before the end of each term.

The Business Office should run a list of students with outstanding balances four weeks before the end of each term. The list should be reviewed with the Director of Financial Aid and students who are otherwise academically successful. Good citizens should be contacted by telephone or in person. On a case-by-case basis, consider creative payment options and even the possibility of covering outstanding balances with institutional aid.

4. Review the grades for general education courses at the end of every term, and plan academic support services and study hall options accordingly.

It should be easy to identify the courses (or particular sections of courses) in which students are struggling. While you may not be able to change the curriculum, faculty or classroom experience, you can offer specific academic support and approach students enrolled in “at-risk” courses to encourage them to take advantage of available assistance.

5. Send a representative from your academic support area to sit in on classes with high rates of students earning “D” or “F” grades or where there are high withdrawal rates.

Sometimes, sitting in on a few classes of a particular course where students struggle to succeed can inform academic support tactics. Additionally, programs such as the Supplemental Instruction program, an academic support model first instituted at The University of Missouri-Kansas City by Dr. Deanna Martin, is a program where students receive not only academic support, but assistance in becoming independent learners. These programs can be targeted at such courses. Data has proven that regular attendance at the program’s sessions will help raise grade point averages.

6. Be sure to schedule meetings with departmental Deans every term to discuss how to improve student retention.

These meetings can be used to provide feedback to deans on student success rates as a function of major, course and section. The deans can also participate in discussions to determine study groups and the focus of academic support offerings.

7. Have the chief academic officer keep numeric counts of the number of students in each major each term.

Keeping counts might encourage accountability for academic success in the classroom.

8. Hire a group of full-time professionals to advise new students and students who are undecided on a major.

A number of advantages result from hiring full-time advisors:

  • It is easier to hold such staff members accountable for activities and outcomes.
  • These individuals will have much more time to dedicate to advising and retention support services.
  • Opportunities emerge to engage these individuals in important tasks in addition to advising.

9. Train academic advisors on the basics of Satisfactory Academic Progress rules for financial aid.

Students are deciding to leave schools due to shortcomings for both the quantitative and qualitative measures of SAP because the government has strengthened the rules. Transfer students, in particular, often run into situations where eligibility limits are being met before sufficient credits are earned for graduation. Advisors should be better equipped to educate students about the SAP implications for scheduling decisions.

Some schools have gone so far as to require the financial aid office to sign off on scheduling changes to ensure that students are made aware of any impact of schedule changes on compliance with Satisfactory Academic Progress measures and financial aid program aggregate award limits.

10. Consider locating the advising center near the financial aid office.

Leaders have discovered that proximity breeds natural cross-training between the two offices and facilitates easy referrals.

11. Have advisors make personal calls and schedule one-on-one meetings with students earning “D” or “F” grades at midterm.

The key here is not to just attempt academic intervention, but to ensure personal contact. This means that all referrals are tracked, and follow-up continues with the students until personal meetings have been completed for all students on the referral list.

12. Inform parents of academic, social, and athletic referrals.

Engage the parents as partners in the intervention process. Rework your approach to FERPA waivers to accommodate this practice. Inform parents at registration events of the academic supports available for their children, the cost and the process of accessing these supports.

13. Schedule a private session with parents at Orientation to discuss the family’s role in retention.

The first inclination for parents when speaking with children in social, academic, financial or athletic distress is to bring them home. Take the opportunity at orientation to educate parents on how to work with administrators and faculty to encourage persistence. Consider the creation of checklists or a newsletter to facilitate positive parental support.

14. Advisors should have a telephone conversation with every student who misses a pre-registration deadline.

This initiative might sound like a simple solution, and many administrators believe this is already being done at their institutions, but there is a big difference between an attempted contact and a completed contact. The key here is to track the contact rates. Accountability for those responsible for contacting the students can be accomplished with shared documents, with input from callers relating date of contact, and with documentation of student response.

15. Encourage new students to establish goals during their “freshman experience” course.

It is easy for students to lose sight of their overall purpose in enrollment at the institution, so proactive reinforcement of how courses help students to achieve their goals is extremely important.

Students should be required to write their short-term and long term goals outlining their financial, academic, social and spiritual goals. These goals can be shared with academic advisors.

As part of each advising session, advisors can explain to students how each course supports their long-term and short-term goals. Advisors should be able to explain to each student, each term how each course contributes to their major and how each course is useful for their career goals. This will require input and coordination with the faculty.

Deans and faculty members should be well equipped to explain the importance of each course offering to the advisors. This kind of proactive, positive reinforcement every term can encourage persistence.

16. Dissuade students from academically inappropriate majors.

Advisors can help students immediately by having frank discussions about the likelihood of academic success in particular majors, and even courses. For example, it may not make sense for students to pursue a major in nursing when their high school transcripts indicate lack of success in science courses. Even if students still want to pursue risky majors, the conversation at least creates the possibility for an academic support plan of action to help the student succeed in a particular major.

17. Fully integrate career counseling into academic advising.

The advisors should work closely with career services to assist students in creating schedules that are in line with career objectives.

18. Encourage participation in co-curricular activities as part of the advising process.

Advisors have unique access to academic credentials, admission applications and essays so they are in a position to recommend participation in clubs and organizations on campus that may be of interest to their students. Obviously, participation in activities outside of the classroom is a good way to improve student retention. Some colleges and universities even require student attendance at a minimum number of campus and community events.

19. Encourage academic advisors to attend campus community events.

Participation and attendance at events on campus allow for the opportunity for advisors to interact with students outside the official advising function.

20. Conduct a comprehensive review of academic credit policies for majors, graduation, transfer credits, AP courses and electives.

Credit policies can influence both recruitment and retention.

  • A recent article in The Washington Post speculated that the decision by Dartmouth College to discontinue offering credit for AP courses may have contributed to a 14% drop in applications for admission.
  • It is hard to defend the number of institutions who force students to retake courses they have already completed successfully at other accredited colleges and universities.
  • Excessive credit requirements for graduation can place students in a position where financial aid resources are depleted before graduation requirements are met.

The implications for this reduction are significant.

  • Harsh transfer credit policies can force students to take longer to graduate. This has serious implications for levels of indebtedness, not to mention lost career earnings.
  • Excessive credit requirements for majors limit the ability of students to take courses outside of the intended major and jeopardize a well-rounded college experience.

Retention is so essential, yet few colleges are taking effective action to materially improve results. These 20 strategic, specific and effective actions can be put set in motion right now in your institution of higher learning.


John W. Dysart is president of the Dysart Group, a firm that specializes in enrollment management.  The Dysart Group has worked with more than 160 colleges throughout the United States including publics and for profits.




  • John Dysart

    John W. Dysart is President of The Dysart Group.  He has held leadership positions and provided consulting services in higher education for more than thirty years. Mr. Dysart has consulted with more than 170 colleges and has been able to increase new student enrollments by as much as 70%, reduce or stabilize discount rates and increase retention rates by as much as 7% in a single cycle. Considered a national expert in enrollment management, John Dysart has conducted seminars and made dozens of presentations for 18 higher education professional organizations and has written articles for several higher education publications.

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