Student Retention: Learning from Business and Industry

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Dr. Abraham S. Fischler
President Emeritus and University Professor
Nova Southeastern University

During my long career in higher education and dealing with student retention, I have been amazed by the myriad factors that influence persistence. Dozens of research projects have been conducted over the years on retention and we now know several steps that can be taken to positively influence grade level progression and graduation rates. The challenge for colleges and universities is that many of these steps can be difficult to implement, arduous to maintain, politically complicated and expensive.

Curricular updates and advancements can be helpful, but the process for securing such change can take a very long time. Lengthy committee discussions, compromise and differing opinions will be part of the process and these aspects can result in “watered-down” reforms.

Early warning systems definitely work, but require proactive participation by diverse campus constituent groups. Sometimes college and university leaders are able to secure full participation, yet often wide-scale implementation is just not possible.

Retention rates can be improved by making material in-creases in the academic preparation levels of newly enrolled students. Recruiting and matriculating students with higher standardized test scores and higher high school grade point averages can increase graduation rates. Raising standards, however, is not a realistic option for many institutions. Even when there are opportunities to raise standards, other campus improvements also might be necessary to ensure that higher ability students actually enroll.

Higher educational professionals should consider looking to business and industry to find new ways to approach the issue. I learned that dropout rates could be reduced if students took a course in Success. Not the traditional “foundations” course, or typical freshmen year experience course, but an educational experience that emphasizes achievement of goals, teaches more practical life skills and helps students stay motivated. In conjunction with The Pacific Institute, Dr. Joe Pace, Chairman of the Performance Institute, created a course lesson based on proven research using techniques and tactics that have been successful in the business world. The curriculum, Thought Patterns for a Successful Career, has been implemented at a number of colleges and universities throughout the United States with impressive results.

We have all encountered students who have never been successful, and/or have not had the benefit of growing up with appropriate mentors and thus lack the vision or experience to succeed. Even students coming from second and third generation college families, and with better than average academic preparation can struggle. This can be countered by training students on how to dig deep down to find a picture or vision that motivates them.

One of the things we found in both research and in practical application is that people who stay in school have a vision in their mind about a specific outcome; they have a picture that’s very sensory rich. They can touch it, taste it. If a student is trained properly, he/she can tap this information and then use it for motivation and to overcome obstacles. The impact happens one student at a time, but by influencing one student at a time, your retention rate can improve 10 percent over the course of one year.

I recall one adult woman, who worked at the college where she graduated and said she thought about dropping out at least 40 times, but she kept going because of her 3-year-old son, Quentin. The college was able to help her use Quentin as her vision or picture for persisting. This particular college is always looking to find ways of helping their students lock on to a vision, a picture, something in which they take great pride. In this case, it was the student’s son. But visions for motivation can be found in many places for different students. Perhaps it is the dream of attending graduate school, or landing the dream job or making more money or just making parents proud.

Some students may have a clear initial goal, but drop out be-cause their vision isn’t strong enough to take them through the rough spots over a longer period of time. The vision of a new car, for example, might not be enough. Others drop out because the classes aren’t what they expected. The student sees a glossy view book and an exciting web site and the ad-mission counselor helps him or her focus on how the university can meet his or her specific needs. But no one has bothered to share how the university has been marketed with the faculty and other staff and this can create the classic retention risk where expectations do not meet reality. Incorporating those aspects of the institution that attract students into the general educational experience does not mean lowering grading scales, or changing course outlines, but it might mean being aware of what initially excites students about attending college and then taking some proactive measures to make sure the reasons for the initial attraction are reinforced as often as possible.

Students are usually looking for a lifestyle change, and have an image in mind of a better life for themselves. Some faculty and staff think it’s just about the academic programming, the major or impressive faculty credentials. Students may not care about that. They have a dream in their minds, so the more the campus personnel know about the vision or picture, the more they can target that dream.

Colleges and universities have been successfully using this approach to improve class attendance. The simple task of effectively encouraging students to get up and go to class every day requires similar motivation. Colleges and universities can use the same visioning techniques. Constantly remind students of why they enrolled in the first place. Reinforce in the classroom experience why the information provided is important and how it is useful. When possible, help students connect the day-to-day classroom experience with their educational goal. This approach can enable students to consistently overcome obstacles.

There are some very simple things colleges can do to rein-force a student’s motivation:

– Some institutions take a picture of students in cap and gown on the first day of class or during orientation. The pictures can be given to students to put on their notebooks or on their residence hall room bulletin boards.

– Others make a tapestry with the names of everyone in the entering class.

-Some give out T-shirts with student names on the back.

These simple activities can help students create a new social group built around a common goal and success.

This approach to retention is based on research that has been around for 50 or 60 years and places it in a user-friendly context with practical applications. Many colleges and universities have realized significant improvements in retention outcomes by incorporating programs such as Thought Patterns for a Successful Career into their foundations or freshmen year experience course.

The impact of the course for students can be supplemented by providing faculty and staff with available training. Faculty and staff who are student-orientated and have positive expectations of students make a big difference in a college’s retention rate. Faculty is critically important because many students spend more time with them than other campus personnel. Coaches are also very influential for the same reason.

What I have discovered is that the approach described above can be greatly enhanced if, in addition to students learning these skills, faculty, staff and administrators under-stand the basic concepts and apply them when interacting with students. Everyone working on campus should strive to be models, mentors and monitors.

I advocate becoming an “edupreneur”- half educator, half entrepreneur- in order to understand both the business and educational sides of higher education. Sometimes the administrative side does not understand or fully appreciate the educator side and the reverse is as often true. I have been involved in training sessions that have helped the campus community to better understand the student perspective. The training involves exercises designed to allow faculty and staff to examine student encounters differently, while encouraging visualizing various situations from the perspective of students in order to react in ways that will enhance the student experience.

If you take nothing else away from reading this article, at least understand the dictate that “attention equals retention.” Research has consistently shown that paying exceptional attention to students over a period of time will result in improved retention. One could spend three months with 30 students and every day ask them how they’re doing, smile at them, and pay extraordinary attention to them. Over the three-month period, you would see major improvement in retention with this group. The effect multiplies when faculty and staff team up and expand the group of students benefitting from the attention. There’s sort of a law of synergy or a law of physics that comes into effect. I have seen that if I can get 10 out of 20 campus workers to say, “You know, this really makes a lot of sense,” it’s absolutely amazing how you begin to see it reflected in the way they interact with students every day.

Teachers, meaning all faculty and staff on campus, need an intelligent heart: knowledge about their subject and the heart to know how to reach students. Often staff members just want to focus on their every day job and are not concerned with being student focused and customer-oriented. It’s important, however, to achieve the balance of being part of an educational institution and being someone dedicated to student success.

Once staff and faculty have been motivated, how can colleges and universities foster continuation of student-focused attention? Well, it will not work with just a single training session. Follow up training is important and at least annual reinforcement is necessary. Chief administrators must both advocate for and demonstrate commitment to the approach. Bring in experts from off-campus to reignite interest.

Some might think this stuff is too touchy-feely, but it’s not. Research shows that in order to foster change of any type, to create lasting, meaningful synapses in the brain, there must be emotion involved. This emotion is sometimes mistaken as touchy-feely. Behaviors do not change unless there is a synapse in the brain that is sustained by some form of emotion causing motivation. That motivation can be value or threat, but the value works much better and fosters better results. In a democratic society where every vote counts, it is imperative that we provide an adequate education to every person to help them reach their full potential. We cannot afford to hide behind our excuses for not succeeding with every child, regardless of their background.

For more information on “Thought Patterns for a Successful Career,” contact Mark Panciera, President of Performance Institute, at (954) 602-9893 or 

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