How should I be addressing student retention issues in the midst of a pandemic? I am finding myself in the role of Director of Admissions saying something to students for retention and recruiting purposes that I never thought I would say . . .
Yes, Sammy, I agree that your withdrawing from the program right now is the best way to finish the program.
Why would a Director of Admissions and Chief Student Success Officer give such a paradoxical mandate? Am I looking to sabotage our school and my own position?
The reason lies in the chaotic, disorganized, and confused contexts of students’ lives. The pandemic has rearranged priorities in ways that potential and present students could never have imagined seven months ago! Take for example . . .
One student’s business just went under.
Another student’s financial situation has forced them into bankruptcy.
A potential recruit is in the midst of home repairs that have shut down, nullifying efforts to sell their home.
Another potential recruit has just taken on a night job, with new babies in the picture.
Every school official having anything to do with student retention understands these scenarios. They are quickly becoming the norm.
Consequently, this picture of the overwhelming nature of the vicissitudes of life has forced me to rethink some fundamental assumptions about the lives of students. Change and crisis has a way of re-ordering one’s perceptive lens.
Here are the four areas in which my perspective has changed—and changed quickly.
1. Understanding Shifting Student Priorities
Because of the pressing duties and burdens of responsibilities being placed on their shoulders, educational dreams and goals of students have a way of being put on the back burner.
All of a sudden, plans for education do not fit into their time schedule, nor do they fit into the budget. I have had to develop an empathetic ear that allows students to struggle with the huge dilemma forced upon them. They are finding out that laudable intentions are not matching choices having to be made in real time. These “critical life moments” have a way of determining priorities (Russell & Jarvis, 2019, p. 494).
2. Allowing Flexible Student Commitments
I am old school; I admit it. I want to see students fulfill their commitments. So, the thing that has been most frustrating to me in Admissions has been to see one student after another get right up to the point of enrollment in classes and then at the last second, change their mind! Even enrolled students in the middle of their program will drop out or drop off the radar for months at a time.
I had to change my thoughts and attitudes from disrespecting these students for breaking their commitments to understanding that they made promises to attend school with good intentions. I now understand that chaos, uncertainty, and flexibility seem to function as the unholy trinity of our current culture. As a result, students face many trials and tribulations that they have no control over. I have to honor that fact. I have to be more focused on students than on student retention.
3. Redefining Student Success and Failure
Course withdrawals and other mitigating factors need not be viewed as failure.
In years gone by, education was something you obtained in pretty standard packages. Long gone is the day when graduate programs are completed in three or four years. In fact, for some students, being able to drop specific courses in mid-stream without being made to feel guilty for the choice actually helps them feel they can go forward.
In fact, the more engaged the educational institution is in helping students make final determinations relating to course withdrawal or complete withdrawal, the more likely students are to re-engage (Akos & James, 2020, p. 91).
4. Maintaining Continued Communication With Students
Student retention can even be achieved after a student withdraws. Withdrawals need not be permanent. Recent studies indicate that the number one factor in students seeing themselves still in the program (even after they have withdrawn!) is a “sense of belonging.” This is deeply rooted in the student’s learning identity and becomes part of their wider world.
So, even though students withdraw from a course, or even the program, the challenge for educational institutions is to maintain communication in such a manner that the student does not lose their “learning identity” (Russell & Jarvis, 2019, p. 499).
Of course, the difficult dynamic that has to be negotiated is how much time can an Admissions Office put into maintaining those relationships?
I now repeat my paradoxical statement with these new perceptions inserted:
Yes, I agree (I am empathetic and I hear your plight)
that your withdrawing from the program (I do not want you to feel guilty for this decision because I can see that new priorities have taken precedent in your life)
right now (and I understand that you plan on returning when the time is right, and until then I am still staying in touch with you)
is the best way (I come alongside you and affirm that this choice is a good and successful one)
to finish the program (we are both on the same page here, and we are in this together until you finally get your degree).
Even though I never thought I would be affirming so many times that it is appropriate for students to withdraw, I have come to be at peace with it all. My conversion is founded on a renewal of perspective on student priorities, commitments, failure/success, and continued communication.
I now view these perspectives as my arena of faithful stewardship in ministering to our students. And since I also serve as university chaplain, all four have become the stuff of my prayer life on behalf of each student.
Who would have thought that this old-school administrator, one tasked with facilitating student retention, would become this kind of new-school empathetic withdrawal advocate?!
Akos, P., & James, S. (2020). Are course withdrawals a useful student success strategy? NACADA Journal, 1(40), 80-93.
Russell, L., & Jarvis, C. (December, 2019). Student withdrawal, retention, and their sense of belonging; Their experience in their words. Research in Educational Administration & Leadership, 3(4), 494-525.