Colleges and universities are struggling to keep students focussed long enough to graduate within a reasonable amount of time after they first enroll. In the U.S., only about 60 percent of undergraduates earn their degrees in six years. The rest commonly face a blizzard of troubles—added debt, poor job prospects and, in some cases, lack of self worth.
While one of the biggest causes of dropping out is money—especially as the cost of college rises—that is not the only hurdle. It turns out that in ways that are not always well understood by the public, colleges themselves share a good deal of the blame.
Too often, colleges have adopted a division-of-labor approach with their recruitment and retention efforts.
There is an art and science, of course, to finding students on the internet. Recruitment officials are trained to exploit the remarkable firepower of social media, vast databases, and other highly effective digital tools. They can reach millions of prospective students just by clicking the right link and paying search engines enough cash.
But what happens when large numbers of new recruits enroll, only to trip and fall off their academic track.
A dozen years ago, when I first came to New York University as dean of online learning at the university’s engineering school, I found that a marketing vendor, hired by my predecessor, had been enrolling a surprising number of new online master’s students. Impressed, I turned to my staff, wondering how many who had signed-up had persisted. “Let’s look at the spreadsheets,” I proposed. Taken aback by results showing that of the dozens of new recruits the company had attracted, only a handful had returned for the next semester. The drop-off was shocking.
College recruiters focus on generating big sign-ups to achieve their targets. Concentrating solely on generating big numbers, recruiters tend to have little or no investment in what happens next.
Throwing everything you have at recruitment while neglecting ways of keeping students on the path to graduation is irresponsible, especially considering the debt students often take on to enter college.
What if new recruits’ next steps were guided by the same staff who encouraged them to sign-up in the first place? What if recruiters stayed close to apprehensive newcomers, sticking with them through orientation, helping them untangle course selection, and shepherding them through the dozens of challenges that lay ahead? What if those who struggled with students from the start of their academic journey accompanied them all the way through to commencement?
Colleges should concentrate less on enrollment efforts and more on the student’s life cycle. Introducing a holistic strategy, recruiters are given a longer-term mission than just rounding-up freshmen. Colleges need to add a crucial set of competencies to recruiters’ job description—the skills of a retention specialist.
“Students get very close to those who recruit them,” said Lisa Bellantuono, director of graduate admissions at George Washington University School of Business, in a phone interview last week. “Then, suddenly, at most colleges, they’re cut-off from someone who knows them and passed on to others who don’t. They become just numbers in the system—totally disconnected.”
A pro at student support, Bellantuono worked closely with me at NYU’s engineering school. During her tenure there, her holistic method outperformed average retention and graduation rates at most engineering schools—on campus and online. Our students achieved a 92 percent retention rate and graduation rates of nearly 80 percent.
“Those best at propelling student retention are terrific at customer service,” Bellantuono said. “No task is too small, no question out of bounds. Their priority is to help students achieve their goals.”
In Bellantuono’s approach, recruiters engage effectively with prospective learners, and then extend their involvement beyond enrollment, offering continuing support after they sign up. In this expanded role, they help learners navigate often treacherous academic waters, guiding them through mystifying curriculum requirements, baffling financial-aid bureaucracy and obscure rules that can quickly throw students off.
These hurdles can trip up 18-year-olds, for sure, and they can derail adult students as well. And they can be even worse for first-generation learners or online students without a face-to-face connection to campus.
“Faculty members are often the most direct way to help at-risk students,” says Carl J. Strikwerda, former president of Elizabethtown College, in a recent opinion column. “No matter what else colleges and universities do for students, success in the classroom is essential.”
The answer is not to rely on faculty members alone, though a sympathetic professor or trusted academic advisors may step in from time to time to help. But faculty members are not buddies. Surely, they have other pressing obligations, principally to make sure learners absorb their lessons. Other staff should be available to make sure students stay on track.
Retention and graduation rates will rise only when higher education softens, allowing a more student-centered approach rather than allowing students to sink or swim.
This is not merely a practical solution to the nation’s retention crisis, but a socially responsible way to run the university.