How SAPros Should Be Using Data to Prove Their Work’s Impact on Retention

There’s no guaranteed strategy for retaining every enrolled student on a college campus.

Students’ learning styles, social lives, and academic motivations are all unique and complex. It’s why colleges and universities worldwide invest an enormous amount of time, research, and money into developing and testing new strategies for retaining their students.

Admissions officers are often seen by institutional leadership as the sole retention heroes — with all of retention boiling down to recruiting and accepting the “right” students who are likely to succeed and persist. 

Admissions is only the first step. To retain students, institutions need to hold up their end of the enrollment bargain by offering incredible campus experiences. Click To Tweet

Institutional leaders generally understand that “incredible campus experiences” include superb classroom learning. After all, without classes, higher ed would cease to exist. 

But, here’s the rub: Students know that adequate classroom instruction is easy to come by. They can transfer to other institutions that will reward them with the same degree at a lower cost. They can move closer to home or even sign up for classes online (including from for-profit institutions), affording them new flexibility. They see welcome signs for colleges everywhere they drive and ads for online learning every time they turn on their TVs or fire up Instagram. 

When it comes to academic offerings, higher education is an increasingly crowded marketplace. Offering unique academic programs or promising the best faculty around isn’t enough; Your institution needs to do more to convince students not just to enroll, but to stay at your particular campus— semester after semester, even through challenging times. 

The Role of Student Affairs

“Persistence” isn’t a thoughtlessly chosen word to convey retention from the student side. The word speaks to the fact that staying enrolled at an institution for at least two years, through to graduation, isn’t terribly easy. Students need to persist through challenges — both academic and personal. They need support, beyond the classroom, to stay. Otherwise, once they hit barriers (as all students will eventually), it can be all-too-tempting to transfer elsewhere or quit their studies entirely. 

This is why co-curricular engagement is so critical. It’s what keeps students connected to your particular institution — what makes them feel devoted and committed to one school despite thousands of others calling their name (or sending them promotional brochures). 

Student involvement in co-curricular activities such as student organizations, leadership positions, and activity in campus residence halls has a positive correlation with retention and academics. — Kuh Pike 2005 Click To Tweet

By being invested in campus offerings, outside of the classroom, students will feel anchored to your institution. Academic courses will change each semester but students will still have the same student organizations, high-impact programs, and leadership opportunities to look forward to, term after term. Students will build relationships and learn life lessons that they’d lose out on were they to transfer or drop out.

Top Strategies

To dive deeper into the connections between engagement and retention, we need to examine the components of engagement. It’s not synonymous with making friends or — as students might put it — having a social life. 

Both of these things are important, sure, as they keep students motivated to stay part of your campus community. But, friendships and unsanctioned parties alone do not provide students with support. Friends, parties, and game days often motivate students to stay enrolled, but they don’t give students campus survival skills. They make students want to stay but they don’t help them to do so. 

Engagement is what gives them that extra, necessary boost — making students feel a tremendous sense of belonging while simultaneously teaching them co-curricular skills that are useful inside the classroom and beyond.

Besides one-off programming, engagement can be broadly categorized into two main categories: Student organizations and high-impact practices. 

Student organizations are pretty straightforward. They’re chess clubs, a capella groups, Black student councils, sororities, fraternities, debate teams, ukulele tree-climbing clubs, and at least a dozen other types of orgs that I bet anyone reading this can name for their campus.

High-impact practices are a bit more complicated, as their structures and goals are so vast. They’re co-curricular experiences designed with intentional purposes and learning outcomes in mind. They can include internships, leadership programs, research projects, first-year experience, alternative spring breaks, senior seminars, peer mentorship programs, living-learning communities, capstone projects, and much, much more. 

George Kuh, the educational researcher who developed the framework for HIPs (the cooler, hipper name for high-impact practices) outlines the elements of such programs here

…And yes, HIPs can lead to increased retention! Here are some examples of successes that institutions have seen:

All of this is fantastic news for the value of student affairs! By knowing that their co-curricular engagement efforts directly impact retention, student affairs professionals can become a vital part of institutional leadership’s retention conversation. By increasing retention, student affairs surpasses its stereotype of being a frivolous pizza-party-throwing service; at each and every institution, student affairs is key to the bottom line! 

Free Ebook: The Complete Guide to Co-Curricular Learning

Utilizing Data

The secret ingredient that sets succesful institutions apart from others in creating engagement magic is… access to good data! When data is accurate and reliable, SA pros can use it to showcase the value of their division, leading to increased budget allocations, and, thus, even better programming — which can then increase retention even more. It’s a delightful cycle!

SA pros can help kick this cycle off by using engagement data to better understand why, how, and when students are engaging with their daily programming and HIPs. 

Here are some examples of institutions using data to drive decisions:

  • The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy uses real-time data to analyze events in-progress and change things up on-the-go.
  • The student affairs team at Harford Community College compared public transit schedules with long-term data insights to optimize programming schedules and increase commuter student engagement. 
  • Analyzing engagement data has resulted in surprising discoveries at Concordia University St. Paul — like that nearly no international students attend homecoming — which prompts them to improve their programs and guides their long-term decision-making for future departmental growth.
  • When Lynn University compared engagement data with its list of students who had transferred out of the institution after one semester, they discovered that every single departed student had attended zero events! (Yes, every. single. one.) This further justified the important work of student affairs in the minds of institutional leadership.

Retain More Students

Many institutions gain deeper insight into retention trends and motivators by tracking various student demographics. Rather than making sweeping generalizations about how all students prefer to get involved in campus, tracking demographics can help them spot specific barriers to learning and opportunities for engagement.  

For example, an institution might learn that its commuter students are more likely to attend events around noon, when they are already on campus between classes. Or you might discover that first-year students are more likely to join a student organization if they enroll in your First-Year Engagement Program. 

Tracking students by age, academic major, state residency, race, gender, and more can help institutions spot programming blindspots while getting to know their students’ needs better. 

You could even collaborate with other offices to track and compare data, revealing even more trends. The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy is already doing this; they’re studying how time spent with academic advisors correlates with involvement, if certain popular off-campus housing communities have more engaged students than others, and how the number of interactions that a student has with faculty outside of the classroom may play into engagement. 

And The University of Mary Washington’s student affairs team is collaborating with admissions to find trends between students’ original applications and their eventual success at the institution. Knowing if (and how) factors like high school GPA, standardized test scores, and class rank correlate with campus engagement and retention will help inform admissions decisions and marketing to prospective students. It’s yet another way that engagement data can contribute to the bottom line!

Valdosta State University even proved that when it comes to their engagement, more is better. Assessment data acquired from mobile check-in technology reveals that retention skyrockets to 95% once students attend at least ten events per semester. 

The SA pro team worked with other campus offices to show that this data wasn’t mere correlation; factors like a student’s financial aid package, GPA, and first-gen status didn’t explain the trend. Engagement alone explained the retention boost. So now, institutional leadership is not merely supportive of offering some co-curricular programming; they’re truly invested in improving and expanding student affairs initiatives in order to maximize engagement and thus, improve retention. (Download the recording of our recent webinar to learn all about it!)

gif of a cartoon person saying 'smell of success'

I, too, wish there was a universal formula for increasing retention. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a solution among recipes for banana bread or IKEA assembly instructions. 

It’s more individual, unique to each institution and student, than that. But we know that one standard holds true at every type of campus — big, small, public, or private:  Engagement is key. And, by working within the engagement-retention cycle — of showcasing your department’s impact on retention through data, leading to increased resource allocation and better programming — every student affairs department can move from unsung retention heroes to celebrated champions. 

We’d love to tell you more about how Presence is helping hundreds of institutions worldwide improve their retention rates and assess their engagement strategies! Let’s explore how your institution can join the happy, retention-boosted club. Get in touch with us today.

Retain More Students

Jodi Tandet

About the author: Jodi Tandet loves writing about the magic of campus life as the Lead Storyteller at Presence. She's also passionate about baking, mental health advocacy, all the Presence office dogs, and her ever-growing podcast collection. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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