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This post is written by Terianne Sousa, Director of Education Services and Student Retention at Blackboard.

The current landscape of higher education demands that institutions strive to be competitive across numerous different qualifications and categories. Meeting the needs of a changing population of students with diverse backgrounds and priorities is an increasingly complicated process that extends well beyond initial enrollment. Since today’s incoming college students have more choices and challenges than ever when it comes to defining their college experience, stopping out or transferring has become commonplace.

Because of this, schools are finding it increasingly necessary to prioritize student retention efforts and to seek strategies that serve students more effectively. The reason for this shift in focus can be broken down into three key factors: the changing educational marketplace, shifts in governmental funding, and the reduced costs associated with higher retention rates.

Here’s how these three factors have combined to make student retention more important than ever:

The Changing Educational Marketplace

Traditionally, college-bound students have followed a common path to educational success. They apply, they get admitted, they attend, they choose a major and follow a program of study, then graduate.

However, today’s students bring more complex backgrounds and pathways to their plans for completing a college degree. They are more likely to be balancing work, family and finances alongside their schooling. Because students’ priorities are more complex, they have become consumers of their own education that require clear and easily navigable pathways to their chosen outcome. Waiting in long lines or discovering that classes aren’t available can be very discouraging to a learner that has a limited amount of time and money to achieve their goals. If the school they chose isn’t meeting their expectations, today’s higher education market will allow those students to easily find another institution to transfer to.

Institutions need to work to ensure that the programs being offered are relevant to what today’s student requires in order to obtain an occupation they desire. In addition, institutions need to provide a technology infrastructure that will allow those students to navigate the student pathway in a simple, fast, understandable way. These types of efforts at any institution will help to increase student retention and graduation rates.

Shifts in Governmental Funding

While high enrollment numbers were once considered sufficient metrics of success, government funding has become more performance-based. Recently, states have shifted their focus to graduation rates as the key priority for determining government funding to institutions. More than 75 percent of states use a performance-based funding initiative, with some states basing 100 percent of their funding on graduation rates.

Accreditation standards are also beginning to place a higher premium on student success. Toward the end of last year, the Obama administration released an accreditation standards plan that rated colleges on access, affordability and student outcomes. This emphasis on outcomes suggests that student retention levels that translate into higher graduation rates are not only growing in importance, but are likely to become even more significant in the coming years.

Student Retention and Reduced Costs

Institutions are accustomed to investing in student enrollment. However, improving student success and increasing student retention rates yields a higher financial benefit. It is more cost effective to keep students who are already enrolled than to invest in recruitment efforts to drive up enrollment numbers. In order to determine just how much money can be saved by improving student retention, consider a sample scenario of an institution with 15,000 students. If this sample school were to improve their retention rate by even just one percent, they would save about 1.4 million dollars per year.

Student retention efforts not only improve the financial health of an institution, but also allow for more flexibility to reinvest in student success programming that yields an even higher return on investment.

With the combination of these three key factors, student retention isn’t likely to be a fleeting priority for higher education institutions. Instead, a high student retention rate provides a crucial metric for success that stands to only become more important over time.


About the author: Terianne Sousa is the Director of Education Services and Student Retention at Blackboard. She has more than 15 years of experience in education and higher education management in the areas of academic advising, faculty evaluation, career services and online teaching.


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  • Sheila Lee

    You brought some interesting facts with regard
    to the retention focus among institutions of higher learning “The reason for this shift in focus can be
    broken down into three key factors: the changing educational marketplace,
    shifts in governmental funding, and the reduced costs associated with higher
    retention rates.” The greatest revelation to schools is that the cost savings
    for working to retain the students already enrolled far outweigh the costs for
    recruiting new students as you have stated. What this also means is that
    students are not treated as “numbers in an institution they are treated as
    customers and there is a real interest in student satisfaction and success. A customer
    service oriented staff will be the result. A customer service oriented faculty
    will include the expected learning outcomes from taking their courses so the
    student will understand what it is they are responsible for learning from the
    class. All of this activity endorsed and supported by a university will lead to
    retention and higher graduation rates

  • DocHollywood_2

    “A customer service oriented faculty?” Why don’t we hand out number
    sticker and T-shirts while we are at it?

    I look at it this way, either you are prepared to do the work or you are not, and
    if not stop wasting our time by requiring faculty to hand hold those who are
    not academically prepared. More emphasis is being placed on faculty
    metrics (number of student to complete the course) and now they want to
    base pay on the same metrics. So here is my plan; have an exam the first
    week of class with a large amount of work due by the end of the first two weeks
    of the term. Those prepared will rise to the top and the unprepared will drop
    the class. That way my composition will be guaranteed since the
    remaining students will be A & Bs and the reset have been culled from the

    Sure you’ll lose some students but if your measure correctly by looking at their
    past GPA you can skew the exam so that only the academically strong survive

  • Sherry

    Every single semester, I have a couple of FASFA students. They only do the first week of assignments, then do not do anything the rest of the semester. They only enroll for the money. If I drop the student, they still receive the payment after 2 months of being enrolled and MY retention rate gets bad. If I keep the student enrolled and let them fail themselves, MY retention rate still gets bad and they still get to enroll in another class next semester so they can do the same thing again. Every college needs to find a way to stop this from happening or to week out the ones that do that. In my opinion, they do it once, the instructor informs the FASFA assistance office, they put a flag nest to the student name, the student can’t get it for 5 years.

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