Research to retain: Don’t forget about your enrolled students!

By Lauren McDermott
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While much of the marketing communications strategies in higher education focus on enrollment, there’s a big piece of the puzzle that colleges and universities must also consider: retention.

It’s not enough to get students in the door and expect them to stay enrolled through completion. Recent data from The National Student Clearinghouse found that of the 2.4 million students who started postsecondary education in fall 2021, 75.7% were still enrolled just one year later.

What’s that got to do with marketing communications? If you’re asking this question, you might need to assess your retention strategy. Too often, we hear students say that once they enrolled, it was like their institution forgot about them; like they weren't interested in keeping them happy or informed. Students who feel disengaged from or forgotten about by their institution report significantly lower levels of engagement, which studies show directly impacts the likelihood that students will complete their education (Tight, 2020).

This is where research comes in. Measurement is critical to understand if your current students still feel the love and good vibes from your institution after enrollment. Does your institution truly make students feel as if they belong? Do they know the resources you offer and are they able to access them? Is the college reminding students they care about them and making students feel valued? Does your institution’s staff and student body look like the community it serves?

While we cannot control every aspect that factors into a student’s choice to stay enrolled, there are critical strengths and weakness areas we can identify within an institution to ensure the most effective retention strategy.

Recently, 25th Hour Communications worked with a California community college to review its retention strategy. Through a review of its enrollment data, qualitative and quantitative research and analysis, and audits of its digital properties, we learned valuable information about the institution and its students. Using this data, we made recommendations to help them improve critical areas and leverage existing strengths to support students’ success. The college had no idea that numerous students lacked a sense of belonging, which is a critical factor in ensuring students stay enrolled. Moreover, the college learned about some key, easy-to-implement resources, communications and services that would go on to make an impact on the college’s overall retention rates (+17.2%) just one semester later.

25th Hour Communications’ approach puts trained qualitative researchers in front of students, faculty, administration and staff in a safe, non-judgmental environment. While the college had previously engaged in interviews and focus groups with its students to assess overall retention strategies, students felt much more comfortable talking to 25th Hour researchers over people who worked at their institution and offered up specific instances and insights into what would make their overall experience better at their college. Patterns quickly emerged around key areas of student success, belonging and support that college employees would have been unlikely to uncover.

Following our research and analysis, 25th Hour provided a one-year communications plan and implementation support to that California community college, executing many of the recommendations in the report in partnership with the institution.

When was the last time your institution really considered its retention strategy? Don’t lose the students you worked so hard to enroll. We are ready to help you strategize and streamline your retention efforts and help your students get to the finish line.