How to Increase Student Retention by Matching Undergraduates with Programs They’re Likely to Finish

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Dr. Katelyn Sanders
Director of Admission
& Alumni Affairs
Bernard J Dunn School of Pharmacy
Shenandoah University

Dr. Scott D. Miller
Virginia Wesleyan University

The rate of college dropouts is on the rise, which is creating serious problems for students, learning institutions, and the economy.

How Bad Is the Issue?

According to a recent ThinkImpact report, the overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 40 percent, and the rates for non-white students are even higher.

Who drops out?  It’s not just freshmen who end up changing their minds.  An analysis of more than 50 higher education institutions by Civitas Learning found that 20 percent of students who drop out before graduating had 75 percent of the credits they needed for their degree, and 10 percent of them had 90 percent of their credits.

In fact, over 36 million adults in the U.S. have earned college credits but not completed their degrees.  These individuals are projected to earn $21,000 less than college graduates, and over time they are estimated to earn 35 percent less per year.  As a result, students who leave college before they earn their degree will have an even harder time repaying their student loan debt — their reported default rate is 47 percent — which makes the overall debt crisis even more precarious.

Meanwhile, when colleges and universities invest money in recruiting and orienting students only to see many of those students leaving instead of succeeding, it results in lower matriculation rates, diminished institutional reputations, and fewer alumni who are likely or able to provide philanthropic support to the school in the future.

What Can We Do About It?

While the reasons students fail to earn their degrees are often beyond a school’s control —financial hardship, medical concerns, and other life complications — one factor that schools do have a large amount of influence over is how students select a major.  By improving the student-major matchmaking process, any higher education institution can increase its retention rate and help ensure that a greater number of students will be motivated to complete their studies, earn their degrees, and become alumni champions of their alma mater.

How can schools do a better job of matching students to programs they’re likely to complete?

Discuss the large and small details of what makes a student tick.

If prospective students have a good idea of the type of career they’d like to pursue, it can be easier to connect them with a degree program that’s currently required or in demand for that field.  But when a student is undecided about their career prospects, it’s worth exploring deeper questions about what kinds of projects interest them, what aspects of learning excite them, what they believe their strengths are, and what kind of problems they love to solve or what type of change they’d like to create in the world.

For example, a student who excels at STEM but doesn’t necessarily feel drawn to an engineering career may instead be interested in becoming an Operations Manager, an Urban Planner, or even working in the arts, where their methodical approach to challenges might be exactly what a creative endeavor needs to succeed.

Set clear expectations of what the program looks and feels like.

Will the program a student is considering be heavy on textbook reading?  Writing essays?  Hands-on learning?  Self-paced projects?  Group work? Externships?  Are the instructors highly communicative or largely hands-off?  Are there points in the curriculum where the volume of classwork is especially high across multiple classes, which can cause high stress and lead to burnout?

Helping students visualize how their experience will progress during their years of study will give them a much clearer picture of what to expect.  It also helps them identify potential stumbling blocks beforehand. That way they can either prepare for those hurdles in advance or even choose another program entirely, rather than finding themselves stuck in an insurmountable challenge midway through.

Be transparent about expected salaries in a student’s chosen field.

Sometimes, the easiest way to clear a hurdle is to remind yourself just how close you are to the finish line — and since college graduates’ earning potential tends to be significantly higher than non-graduates, this makes crossing that finish line even more important.  Keep up to date on the average entry-level and mid-career salaries in the programs you offer, so students will know what to expect when they cross that finish line.  Having that number on hand will also help them calculate how quickly they’ll be able to repay any student loans, which can make a big difference between seeing a cloudy future and one with a clear light at the end of the student loan tunnel.

Likewise, if the salary expectations or hiring trends in certain fields are in a downturn, it’s important to let prospective students know this so they can determine whether taking on student loan debt to earn a degree in a lower-paying field is still the choice they’d like to make.  That said, the skills a student learns within a program are transferable to multiple career tracks, and being able to offer students alternative possibilities for where their degree could take them may help them feel more confident about pursuing the degree they’ve always dreamed of.

Establish robust feedback and mentoring processes.

Even students who love their programs may still encounter stumbling blocks academically, socially, financially, or personally.  Having a trusted mentor or counselor they can speak with is vital for helping them navigate the unexpected challenges that could otherwise derail them from their graduation pace.

Just as importantly, students must be able to provide feedback to the institution itself regarding what is and isn’t working for them.  Responsive institutions who work with their students to find new solutions to emerging problems will stand a much better chance of retaining those students and celebrating their successes with a degree in hand.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Dr. Katelyn “Katie” Sanders is Director of Admissions and Alumni Affairs at the Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.

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