Dr. Tranquille runs a consultancy business where she provides academic consultancy services to higher education institutions and students to meet their education and academic needs. She has dual citizenship between Trinidad and Tobago and France. She has cited Paris as one of her favorite cities, where she lived for almost a decade. Dr. Tranquille achieved her Doctorate in Social Sciences from the University of Leicester and a Master of Science Degree in Human Resource Management and Human Resource Development from the same university. She has over 15 years of combined professional experience in the human resource management, training, and education sector. Dr. Tranquille has also authored the book ‘Uncrushed: A Simple Three-Step Process to Break a Negative Mindset and Achieve Any Goal in Life’ which can be found on any Amazon platform. Dr. Tranquille now lives with her family in the United Kingdom.
Student retention and completion rate have been a hot topic for Higher Education (HE) institutions since prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact not only on the higher education sector but across various sectors worldwide. Now, post-pandemic, student retention and completion rate remain a unique concern for HE institutions despite slight gains.
The National Student Clearinghouse reported that 75% of students who embarked on their college journey in the first fall of the COVID-19 pandemic returned for their second year which reported a 1.1% increase in the persistent rate. Basically, the persistent rate refers to the percentage of students who return to college for their second year at any institution. Although this figure represents a slight increase, research indicates that this is still below the pre-pandemic level. The same report disclosed that retention rates showed a slight 0.7% increase to 72.4%. However, it is important to note that such increases were recorded for full-time students and relate more primarily to community colleges and private for-profit-four-institutions, while other institutions experienced a slight decline. Thus, student retention and completion rates remain a unique problem across higher education institutions. With the changing global landscape post-COVID, and the widespread growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI), it is crucial that HE institutions amplify their search for unique strategies to combat student retention and completion rates.
Here are SIX key strategies that can help HE institutions address this unique problem.
1. Continuous drive to enhance the student experience: As an academic consultant, this first problem is one that I have frequently heard students complain about. I was therefore not surprised to discover that a 2021 Student Academic Experience Survey published by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found that 44% of undergraduate students studying in the UK reported ‘poor or very poor’ value, compared with just 27% who felt that they received ‘good or very good value’. Amongst other concerns ‘assessment feedback’ and ‘better communication’ were two of the top answers provided by students on how their academic experience could be improved. As a first step, it is critical that each institution evaluate the entire student journey experience to determine where the key gaps in the process. Assessment feedback and communication experience should also be at the top of their list.
It is important to note that improving student experience has less to do with what the HE institution thinks should be done, and more to do with ‘what their students want/need’. The goal is to provide services that will have a positive contribution to each student’s experience throughout their time at the institution. This should therefore start from Day 1. It is also recommended that institutions evaluate their strategies on a periodic basis to determine what is working well and what isn’t. This continuous and dedicated drive to enhance student experience will also reflect positively on the institution and its reputation.
2. Broad range of student support: Students at HE institutions have very busy lives. Many are juggling family, careers, and other personal goals. Thus, providing a broad range of student support will have a positive impact on the student experience. HE institutions could consider providing more personalized student support. As a start, prior to commencing their program, students could be asked to indicate how they prefer to be engaged. Wiley University purports that understanding students’ preferences can incorporate the advising element throughout their program in a seamless way into their learning experience. Again, engaging in an audit of your student support to identify any key gaps and take immediate action would then go a long way to strengthening retention.
Student support could range from support for academic challenges, mental health, achieving life balance, career counseling, student medical service, study training, networking, and more. Another noteworthy point is that many students are also unaware of the support that they have access to at their institution. It would therefore be beneficial to take proactive steps to ensure that students are fully aware of all the support that is available to them and how to access that support.
3. Robust data collection that could inform student retention strategies and policies: Many HE institutions tend to focus on gathering data for the satisfaction of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) in the U.S. or for the Higher Education Student Statistics in the U.K. However, tackling this unique problem of student retention would require a deliberate choice to take proactive steps to gather more robust data which could then be used to inform future decision-making. Here are some key areas in which data could be gathered.
- Key student data like demographics, full-time or part-time status, learning type, site visits, module or lecture cast completion rates,
- Academic data – module/program feedback, lecturer feedback, enrolment rates, module course grades by programs, graduation rates
- Faculty data – employee demographics, staff salaries, staff productivity levels
Analysing such key data can help to inform future student retention policies and strategies. It also allows you to determine those areas that are performing well and key gaps which require attention.
4. The Buy-in and collaboration of the entire faculty: The success of any student retention strategy would depend on the buy-in and collaboration of the entire faculty. It would therefore be counter-productive to engage in such a monumental task without the support of the entire faculty. Thus, a positive student experience should be the goal of all parties at the faculty with a recognition that each contributes to every student’s experience in a different capacity. Helping the entire faculty to understand this goal and to recognize their part in this collaborated vision will go a long way to strengthening student retention.
5. Targeted interventions: When engaging in a more robust data collection process, you will be able to determine the major gaps in the student experience journey. In this way, the institution could engage in targeted interventions. For instance, the data may reveal risks to students. This may include students who have been inactive and could therefore likely result in a potential dropout. In such a case, proactive and specific steps could be taken to reach out to such students to understand what type of support, if any, would benefit them in their educational journey. Thus, use data analysis to provide more targeted interventions.
6. Use of AI to boost student engagement: AI is now being considered by researchers to provide solutions to key problems. It is therefore an opportune time for the HE Sector to begin to consider how AI could be used to add further value and help solve critical problems relating to student engagement. Belcheva (2023) argued that if AI data is used the right way, it could provide learning analytic solutions, improve access and inclusivity for students with disabilities or other learning needs, boost student engagement, and even reduce teacher workload by performing some of the repetitive tasks which could be automated. By so doing, teachers could also have more time to invest further in driving student experience.
AI is not going away and further advancements in this field are inevitable. It is, therefore, imperative that HE institutions begin to consider its relative advantages and take the necessary steps to benefit positively from this technology to address relative problems in the HE Sector. In the same vein, proactive steps would need to also be taken to mitigate against the negative impacts of this technology.
- Belcheva, A (2023) AI in Higher Education: Advantages and Challenges, What is the future of AI in higher education? Available at: https://www.accessmasterstour.com/articles/view/ai-in-higher-education-advantages-and-challenges (Accessed 14 May 2023)
- HEPI (2021) Students highlight the challenges of their 2021 academic experience, Available at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2021/06/24/students-highlight-the-challenges-of-their-2021-academic-experience/ (Accessed 14 May 2023)
- National Student Clearinghouse Research Centre (2022) Persistence and Retention, Available at: https://nscresearchcenter.org/persistence-retention/ (Accessed 14 May 2023)