According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, only 58 percent of first-time, full-time students who began at a four-year institution in fall 2004 completed a bachelor’s degree at that institution within six years (150 percent of normal completion time). Furthermore, according to the same source, only 30 percent of first-time, full-time students enrolled in fall 2007 completed a certificate or associate’s degree within 150 percent of the normal completion times for those programs.

Those figures highlight the student retention challenges faced by America’s colleges and universities. Retention has always been an issue, but in recent years it has been receiving more attention. As a result, efforts to improve retention have become more intense.

There are a number of factors behind this trend. The economic environment of the past several years has made staying in school even more of a challenge for students who struggle to pay for education. Along with that, recent demographic trends have reduced the number of traditional college aged students in the U.S., which has led institutions to look to increased retention as a way to maintain desired enrollment levels. On top of that, lawmakers around the country have placed increased political pressure on some public institutions to improve retention.

While colleges and universities would all like to improve their student retention, actually addressing the issue can be a challenge. It is a complex problem with a variety of root causes ranging from financial challenges, the socioeconomic backgrounds of students, student preparation for college-level work, the extent of institutional support mechanisms for students, the social environment of a campus and individual motivation, among others. With so many factors in play, retention is a battle that colleges have to fight on multiple fronts and over which they have varying degrees of ability to control.

2013 higher education trends student retention

Because of the multi-faceted nature of the problem, a wide variety of approaches have been implemented by institutions. In 2010, a  non-profit organization called ACT, which focuses on higher education issues, conducted a study on What Works in Student Retention. While the findings varied depending on the nature of institutions (public four-year institutions, private four-year institutions and community colleges) and the nature of an institution’s student body, the general findings showed that successful approaches included freshmen seminars, tutoring, enhanced academic advisement, early warning systems and interventions for students who are struggling and summer orientations.

Of course, each institution has to tailor an approach based on its own unique circumstances. Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS) has worked with a number of institutions on research to find out why students don’t complete their studies. Our findings echo those of the broader national studies, in which causes of students not completing their studies are usually rooted in mixture of economic challenges, real or perceived lack of support from the college and what students often describe as “life getting in the way.” The focus of much of our research has been to help colleges diagnose the areas that are contributing most to student attrition and helping them to assess the degree to which each factor is within their control. In general, we have found that the majority of students discontinue their studies for reasons that they believe the school could have done little or nothing to prevent, but at the same time, actionable issues also emerge in areas such as advisement, registration procedures or even a simple lack of awareness of support resources that are already available.

For any institution of higher education that is grappling with the issue of student retention, RMS recommends starting with some diagnostic research. A good initial step is to survey students who have recently left the school without completing and ask them what factors led to their departure. Survey research can also be a key component of early warning programs – for example conducting a telephone survey of first-time students several weeks into the start of a semester and asking them about what sorts of challenges they are facing. That technique can be especially useful in reaching those students who are hesitant to proactively seek assistance or just don’t know where to go. It can also provide tracking data over time to learn the relationship of students’ self-reported struggles in various areas and ultimate retention.

Those are just two examples of the many ways research can be a key component of retention efforts. If you currently work in the higher education industry and you would like to know more about how RMS can provide research resources for student retention, please contact our Business Development Director Sandy Baker, at or by calling (315) 635-9802.