What Coffee Shops Teach Us About College Student Retention

Right now I’m sitting in a great coffee shop in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida writing this blog post. It’s got a laid back feel to it with an array of polaroids across the bar, local art pieces hanging up, and a great community of hustlers plugging away on their laptops.

Coffee shops have this amazing way of making us feel unique. Whether it’s your name on a coffee cup or a cool design in the latte foam, the great shops and baristas don’t fall short of making sure each detail is extra special.

Reports from the National Coffee Association indicates the average American drinks 3.1 cups of coffee a day with the average cup size being 9 oz. And while the United States spends $40 billion on coffee each year, it’s definitely a sector where college administrators could learn a thing or two about retaining customers, or in this case, students.

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Coffee shops face a lot of competition, kind of like colleges and universities do.

Students are willing to transfer to another institution for better value, student involvement opportunities, and more support. When choosing to attend an institution, students consider quality of wi-fi along with involvement opportunities and the campus atmosphere.

Students have plenty of options, so making yourself stand out from a campus life perspective is key.

Many coffee shops utilize a loyalty card, a mobile app, or some type of an incentive program. However, it’s not always about the incentive that you offer to make loyal coffee go-ers, or students, coming back for more.

What more can we learn from coffee shops? Keep reading as I dissect how colleges and universities can learn to increase engagement and reflect on behaviors to retain more students.

First Comes Engagement, Then Comes Loyalty

There’s an awesomely human element about experiencing a coffee shop, ordering coffee, and observing interactions.

Have you ever been a ‘regular’? You probably understand this feeling.

Repeatedly coming back to a place of comfortability has to do with the overall experience: the atmosphere, the culture, the feeling of security, and connection.

Much like college safe spaces, coffee shops try hard to respect an individual’s way of working and how they enjoy their coffee. Most places accommodate for a personalized experience: non-dairy options, different flavor profiles, and some even goes as far to offer transparent details about where their coffee comes from.

Creating an amazing atmosphere is important, especially if students feel comfortable, safe, and naturally empowered to do better by the community around them.

When universities, professionals, or clubs and orgs are looking to build loyalty, they understand what students want and who they are. However, this isn’t the first stepping stone. Research shows thats harnessing engagement first with students will increase loyalty, not the other way around.

So how do you increase engagement exactly? Personalization is key.

  • If you’ve had a conversation with a student previously, do your best to remember their name. This was a key retention strategy I utilized during orientation programs with first-year students. If you’re not great at remembering names, try to hold onto a fact about them or a shared interest you may have.
  • Meet student needs before they’re expressed. Do your homework on what college students expect before they arrive to campus and what they may need when they’re there. When Steve Jobs offered innovative Apple solutions, he rarely listened to his customers. He stated, “A lot of times, people don’t know what you want until you show it to them.”

While loyalty programs aren’t going to go away at universities overnight, college professionals will be better off in understanding how to engage with students rather than incentivizing to join a club or organization. Meaningful relationships and experiences trump free swag and points system every time, and perhaps if we shift our mindset to this perspective, we’ll see students returning to their favorite engagement opportunities rather than returning just to receive that free t-shirt.

Encouraging Generation C to Commune & Connect

College students tend to gravitate towards drinking a lot of coffee. It also serves as a form of social engagement, and shops serve as a space to connect and engage.

Generation C, the groups of students we often now see arriving to college campuses across the country isn’t exactly a generation, it’s more of a mindset. They are looking to connect and build real relationships, as well as finding relationships through commune and high connectivity both online and in-real-life.

Commune (verb)


to converse or talk together, usually with profound intensity, intimacy, etc.; interchange thoughts or feelings; to be intimate communication or rapport

When I meet a student, colleague, or co-worker for coffee or tea, I’ve found that it’s easier to find common ground or solidarity within the conversation. The environment, the hot drink, helps to move along the conversation in a calm atmosphere. It’s also a great reason to get out of stuffy office and bring down proverbial walls that may be limiting a conversation or emotions.

Sometimes in looking to increase engagement, we need to look at increasing things like commune, connectivity, and what consumption of things looks like to students. Once we discover how to build these tangible and intangible atmospheres, can we truly master creating the ultimate student experience.

A study done at University of Colorado at Boulder called Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth found that participants who held a warm drink versus, for example, cold brew coffee or iced coffee, judged those people holding the warm drink more friendlier and approachable. The study highlighted that our brain connects the social behavior of drinking coffee and tea with a ‘warm’ character and competence. The study discussed interpersonal traits described with a person having a warm presence about them, “perceived favorability of the other person’s intentions toward us, including friendliness, helpfulness, and trustworthiness.”

Whether we try to re-create these experiences or build our own, they’re worth reflecting on especially if we’re considering trying to make our environments more comfortable and inclusive.

Finding Ways to Make A Student’s Day

I don’t know about you, but the community, shop, or barista always finds a way to brighten my day.

While working at the coffee shop for the morning (our company expectations allow us to work flexibly) I was trying to let go of some negative thoughts and feelings. My barista happened to throw in my favorite vegan treat, just because! The fact that they remembered my favorite food item made the experience memorable. They immediately saw I was having an off day and did their best to support me.

It’s the little things.

Can you remember when you were an undergraduate student on campus and someone completely made your day? Maybe they were an Resident Assistant, Orientation Leader, Peer Academic Mentor, or the Assistant Director for Student Activities.

Whoever it was, you probably remember the awesome feeling.

Your Thoughts!

In what ways could your office, department or campus, or you as an individual adapt some of these methods of creating a better student experience?

Connect with us @HelloPresence to continue the conversation. Thanks for reading!

Kayley Robsham

About the author: Kayley Robsham is the former Community Engagement Manager at Presence, the complete student engagement platform. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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