About 80 percent of first-time, full-time students enrolled in four-year, degree-granting institutions in 2012 returned the following fall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, whereas the retention rate for first-time students at two-year institutions was 60 percent for the same time period.1 To grow student retention rates, career colleges should focus on establishing and promoting an engaging and nourishing learning environment. Place more emphasis on the conditions of the learning environment rather than on the attributes and behaviors of students.
Take action to retain quality students by acknowledging the following five conditions and ways to ensure students return the following year.
Get Their Feedback
Seek feedback from those who drop out of your program, whether it’s with a survey, exit interview or phone call. Determine the roadblocks that kept the student from staying in school — was it for financial, motivational or academic reasons? Use what you learn to create new support programs or more heavily promote already existing support services.
Check in with your current students periodically, too. Ask for their opinions to find ways to better serve their educational needs. Periodic surveys help college administrators learn where the institution may be falling short. The Community College Survey of Student Engagement is a survey administered to community college students designed to assess institutional practices, student behaviors and accountability. Use the the CCSSE to measure your career college’s performance and to improve student experiences. For more information, visit ccsse.org.2
Provide and Promote Support Networks
A wide range of support is essential for students to stay engaged in school. Provide peer tutors, mentors, role models and coaches who can help keep struggling students on track.
- Create an easily accessible, on-campus tutoring program designed to help students with their coursework. Ensure your academic centers are comfortable and friendly places where students feel safe and secure.
- Provide counseling services and mentorship opportunities for students whose emotional troubles prevent them from progressing. The rigors and stresses of higher education can affect the engagement and performance of nontraditional students who have responsibilities outside of the classroom. Counseling and mentorship can reassure these students that they do have the capabilities and resources to manage school, work, family, finances and other obligations.
- Establish a peer mentorship program for struggling students. Sometimes, students need the power of example from a like-minded person from a similar background. Peers who are succeeding on the same journey can provide the necessary motivation when other methods fail.
Keep Students Focused on Career Goals
Students must recognize the payoff of their education to stay motivated. Work with incoming students to help them identify a professional end-goal. Follow up throughout their academic career, giving them periodic reminders about how their coursework relates to their employment outlook and financial future. Reinforce how their current coursework and learning experiences will equip them with the necessary skills and training for a particular profession. Inform them of high-paying, in-demand occupations and career fields, such as science, technology, engineering and math.
STEM jobs are anticipated to increase as a perceived talent gap in engineering keeps these positions in high demand. For example, according to a report by the state Department of Higher Education, Massachusetts public universities in particular are estimated to produce 73,000 fewer graduates earning degrees in health care, business and finance, and science and math-related fields required to fill well-paying, in-demand jobs.3
Educators and counselors can use a number of strategies to reinforce awareness of the growing marketplace need and potential for STEM graduates:
- When teaching new material, give examples of careers that use the skills being learned in class.
- Emphasize that employers prefer applicants with hands-on experience, and provide experiential learning opportunities that replicate real-world scenarios.
- Select class projects with practical real-life applications. For instance, a video production class can shoot an actual commercial for a local business.
- Partner with employers to offer mentoring programs and internships for students in STEM degree programs.
Help Students Clarify Academic Goals
Students who persist to graduation are more likely to have high, clear and consistent academic goals. To help students develop and stay focused on theirs, begin by asking yourself the following questions to clarify your own thinking: Do students understand what is required of them for successful completion of a program of study? Do they understand the path to earning their degree and achieving their personal goals? What is the best way to communicate this information to them?
It’s even more important to encourage students to ask these questions of themselves. During class and in counseling sessions, instructors and counselors should ask students such questions as, Do you know what you want to do with your degree or certification? What degree or certification do you need to get the job you want? When do you want to finish? To finish on schedule, how many credits do you need to complete this semester? What grade point average do you aim to achieve? How many hours a week will you have to study to achieve the grades you want?
Celebrate Benchmark Achievements
To keep goals manageable, students should have opportunities to celebrate the achievement of benchmarks along their path to completion. Graduation ceremonies celebrate the completion of academic success, but they can be heralded by many smaller celebrations.
In each class, instructors can invite students to set goals and celebrate benchmarks. Start the semester off by telling students what they’ll have learned and what projects they’ll have completed by the end of the class. For example, a computer programming instructor can announce that by the end of the class, each student will be able to write a program that will perform a specific task, such as running a simple smartphone app.
As students progress toward semester goals, pause to mark progress when specific benchmarks are achieved. Instructors can designate benchmarks by specific time intervals, such as the end of the month, mid-terms, and holiday breaks, by learning achievements, such as mastering a specific skill set, and by the completion of major assignments, such as essays and exams. Actual celebrations such as class parties and activities add an element of fun.
Academic counselors can also help students set goals and identify benchmarks that span multiple classes and semesters. For instance, just like students receive diplomas at graduation, they can receive periodic notifications of their progress toward their credit totals, marking intervals such as one quarter, halfway, and three quarters to completion. Keeping students updated on their progress reinforces that they’re doing good work and moving in the right direction and encourages them to see their program through to completion.