How to Increase Student Retention

It’s Time to Level Up Your Retention Strategy

Are you constantly looking for ways to improve student retention only to feel like every effort is a shot in the dark? In the face of lower enrollment rates and increased applicant competition, institutions of higher learning are doubling down on reimagining what effective student retention strategies look like through mechanisms that center the student experience. That's because, when we take the time to understand the challenges students face, we can put informed practices in place that make the landscape of higher education more equitable and increase retention rates at the same time. Institutions focused on equity-minded student retention are not only facilitating excellent education delivery, they begin to build a strong culture that fosters students’ sense of belonging, and increases student engagement.


Explore student retention strategies for your institution:




Have an Integrated Student Success Strategy

The key word here is “integrated.” A strong student retention strategy goes beyond offering support services like tutoring, academic advising, and career counseling. True integrated student success strategies leverage cross-campus collaboration to weave support services together for a holistic view of the issues that could be impacting your student persistence and retention. Further, having a mechanism that allows these functions to communicate to one another effectively – especially when it comes to more serious barriers that impact student success – provides administrators a means of real-time intervention and leadership with window into the practices and policies that aren't reaching today's diverse student population. 


Build a Strong Sense of Community

The importance of students’ sense of belonging in determining their likelihood of success within educational institutions is well documented in academic literature. One prominent indicator of student persistence is sense of belonging  – or an identification and affiliation with a community. Meeting students where they are and creating opportunities for them to feel a sense of community and sense of purpose at an institution is an essential part of maintaining a high student retention rate. Studies show, students who feel connected to their peers, faculty, and staff are more likely to stay at an institution and have a higher motivation to finish their degree. 

Fostering this sense of community is a large undertaking and involves an institution-wide effort to see the current student experience through an honest lens, embrace the intersectionality of student identity, and lean into identity-concious programming, curriculum, and policies. To start, many schools look to activities and student-run organizations, but just having them isn't enough. When it comes to getting more out of your student retention strategies, you also have to encourage student engagement and participation. 

Here's how you can increase student engagement in campus activities as part of your student retention strategies: 

  • Promote a Diverse Range of Extracurricular Activities: Offer a variety of extracurricular activities that cater to different interests. The more options available, the more likely students will find something that interests them. Review the inventory of your offerings and look for opportunities to expand, whether it’s sports, community service organizations, academic groups, or clubs of all kinds.

  • Showcase the Benefits of Extracurricular Activities: A lot of students don’t know the benefits of extracurricular activities outside of building relationships with people on campus. It’s important to connect extracurricular activities to students' leadership skills, academic performance, and skills on their resume.

  • Ensure Extracurricular Activities are Accessible: Not all students think activities are for them or face barriers to participating. Make it easier for students to take part in extracurricular activities by providing transportation and working directly with the student organizations on campus to ensure that their activities are taking place outside of peak class hours.

  • Provide Incentives: Offering reward, course credit, or recognition for participation can be an effective motivator for students. Examples include providing certificates, awards, or even scholarships for students who participate in and excel in extracurricular activities.


Offer Flexible Scheduling,
Course Delivery, and Resources

Keeping your offerings flexible in nature helps students feel like your programs are designed to meet them where they are in their educational journey. Flexibility in your scheduling, course delivery, and in the resources you offer demonstrates that you are a student-ready institution of higher learning, dedicated to fostering their sense of belonging.

  • Flexible Scheduling and Course Delivery: Institutions that offer flexible scheduling and course delivery options – including evening and weekend classes – are more likely to retain non-traditional students who may have work or obligations as a caregiver. Additionally, some universities have continued offering hybrid classes that integrate on-campus and remote learning.

  • Flexible Campus Resources: Beyond academic stressors, mental and emotional stress is a top contributor to students stopping or dropping out of school. By making campus resources available in the evening, on the weekends and through SMS technology, students can connect to resources on their schedule when they're ready. Research has shown students are the most engaged and ready to communicate between 7:30-8:30 PM Monday-Friday and 12PM-6PM on Saturdays and Sundays. Having administrators available at that time may not be a sustainable practice, so seeking out technology providers that offer ways for students to log concerns privately during off-hours and receive individualized support have been proven to be effective.

Lastly, make sure students are aware of your flexible options to increase student engagement! Promote these offerings through email, social media, and bulletin boards around campus. Plus, you can ask your faculty to make announcements once a month.


Use Data to
Inform Decision Making

Build thoughtful strategies that show the truth behind your institution's retention by disaggregating retention and graduation rates. 

Key to understanding what areas need improvement and what resources may be underutilized is the ability to capture and measure data from across your institution. This includes analyzing student engagement, non-cognitive indicators of persistence, and satisfaction.

Early-alert systems are especially critical to this effort to identify students facing challenges that could lead them to leave the institution. Information and intervention should work in symphony so that student receive the individualized support before they consider leaving the institution.


Leverage Student Voice & Peer Insights

In order to understand the student experience, you have to ask! In doing so, you’ll be able to leverage student insights to find areas of improvement in your student retention strategies. 

How do you gain access to student voice?

  • Surveys: Sending surveys to students at specific points in their education journey, yields insight into the stages that require more intervention and attention. Surveys should combine demographic data and come from multiple sources to ensure you’re getting a holistic view of the barriers (or successes!) students encounter. 

  • Peer Mentoring Programs: Launching a peer mentorship program can be a great way to gather student insights and support a sense of belonging. Students will tell peers things that they may not share with their academic advisors, their professors, and other staff at your institution. These insights are incredibly valuable because they are genuine and often shared in real-time. You likely would not be able to gather this information via other methods. These details can be key to diagnosing underlying issues that affect student retention. It's important to note that peer relationships provide the greatest impact when mentees and mentors are thoughtfully matched across various dimensions of identity and mentors understand the scope of their responsibility and the support behind their role.

  • Student-Associations: Holding events that give students access to leadership and invite honest feedback about the policies, curriculum and services at an institution can be effective in not only encouraging dialogue about the student experience and current events, it keeps student voice at the forefront of student success planning. 

If you need help launching a mentoring program to get student insights, you can read more about Mentor Collective’s solutions here!

Offer Peer Mentorship

  • structured peer mentorship program is a compelling addition to academic advising that can help you expand student support offerings. Mentorships are individualized, the program can be scaled to impact many students, and it can drive results at a lower cost than hiring more advisors. We also know students are more likely to share with and feel a connection to their peers when compared to staff or faculty, making advising and peer mentorship truly complementary to building a robust support system for students.

    In practice, peer mentors provide support that extends beyond academics or extracurriculars. They offer a friendly and welcoming ear to questions, which opens the doors of communication to identify areas of improvement in your student retention strategies. A peer mentorship program offers guidance tailored to the student’s needs and encourages help-seeking behaviors that will not only serve the individual student, but the greater student population as well.