According to the National Student Clearinghouse, the retention rate for public, four-year institutions in higher education is 76.3%. That means about 1 in 4 students left their school to study elsewhere — or nowhere at all.
Of course, numbers tell only part of the story. When you work with students directly, they will have unique strengths that can help them persist in online programs. By identifying and unlocking those strengths, you can put more students on track to graduation.
This approach has helped us achieve 89% year-over-year retention for the online students we support. Let’s walk through five retention steps that can help take your student retention efforts to the next level.
Begin advising students as soon as they enroll
A strength-based retention strategy doesn’t wait for students to experience trouble. Instead, you’ll need to get to know each student — and personalize your support — as soon as they enroll.
Here are basic items for your advisors or admissions to cover during these initial meetings:
Show students that you’re “here” for them
During these meetings, your advisors can welcome the student and commit to empowering their success. It’s also wise to point students to resources and services that will offer support once classes begin.
Guide the course selection process
Your advisors should make sure each student follows the proper course sequence. Plus, work with students on how much time they have for classes. This process can determine if a part-time or full-time course load will work best.
Develop milestones with achievable goals
Many students need a roadmap for how they’ll succeed. By establishing milestones, your advisors will help students picture how they’ll progress through their program. According to Hanover Research, this approach has been 80% effective for strengthening retention for students needing additional support.
Engage students how they want
During the initial conversations, advisors should commit to engaging students on their terms. Do they prefer to talk by email, text, or phone? Learning these preferences can fit advising seamlessly into their learning experience.
Tackling these items before classes begin helps your advisors build rapport with learners. From there, you can tailor your guidance around their individual needs.
To help these learners build resilience, your advisors should engage them with empathy.
That means listening to their challenges while reframing them as growth opportunities, not failures.
Personalize your support for online learners
It’s common for universities to use their campus support model when advising online learners. However, this may not be the best way to engage those students. Those taking online classes have different experiences and needs than their peers on campus.
The Online Learning Advising Model (OLAM) can guide how your advisors help students discover and use their strengths to thrive in online programs. OLAM includes four elements to support online students effectively:
If your advisors wait to engage learners after a setback, it may be too late. Instead, they should build on the relationship established in the first strategy, forming connections so that students feel comfortable asking them for help.
It’s also essential to use AI-enabled tools to monitor performance. This continuous observation helps you spot signs that a student is falling behind and offer immediate support to keep them on track. As a result, you can support students who usually don’t ask for assistance — and even reduce the likelihood of students ghosting their programs.
Shame resilience theory
It’s common for students to doubt themselves during online programs, such as after getting a bad grade on an assignment. Unfortunately, some students let these feelings fester, reducing their confidence and putting them at risk of attrition.
To help these learners build resilience, your advisors should engage them with empathy. That means listening to their challenges while reframing them as growth opportunities, not failures.
When your advisors use this theory correctly, they can help students learn from their experience, improve their performance, and persist until graduation.
Every student can succumb to negative thinking. But for some students, it becomes a vicious cycle they can’t escape. If their self-esteem sinks too low, they may give up on their online program and drop out.
With cognitive-behavioral theory, your advisors can lift students into a more positive frame of mind. Applying this theory starts with training your advisors to spot warning signs that students are losing confidence. Then they can deploy targeted outreach to instill confidence in students.
At the same time, your advisors can connect students with support services to address the root cause of challenges. That could involve tutoring services to assist with a class or mental health counseling for support with stress and other conditions.
With appreciative advising, you can amplify each student’s natural talents to offset their skill gaps. Start by identifying these talents during the initial outreach to students. From there, position those strengths as ways for students to thrive in their online program.
This approach helps students compensate for weaknesses. Instead of feeling like they can’t succeed, show them how they’re strong in other areas. It’s important not to focus on general ideas that might work for “all” students — spotlight abilities that work for the individual.
Many academically developing learners are resilient, creative problem-solvers.
Through appreciative advising, you can empower them to recognize these strengths and apply them when challenges arise.
Fine-tune your guidance based on academic performance
Monitoring student performance helps you spot when students fall behind. You can also use this data to tailor your guidance based on the support students need. One way to get started is by developing different strategies for academically talented and academically developing learners.
Supporting academically talented learners
These learners often get less attention from advisors. That seems fair on the surface, as their grades often remain high, so they exhibit fewer red flags.
While these students may not ask for help, they often want it. After all, they have faced increased pressures at home and work during the pandemic, which could increase the stress they feel during an online program.
What’s more, academically talented learners don’t expect to stumble. They’re accustomed to success in the classroom, so a bad grade on an assignment will take them by surprise and sap their confidence.
That’s where the cognitive-behavioral theory enters the picture. Support these learners by helping them realize a bad grade isn’t the same as failure. Instead, it’s part of the learning journey that every student experiences.
Another challenge for academically talented learners is the risk of trying to coast through a program. After all, when it comes to school, they “get it.” While this could make their program easier, it also puts them at risk of losing interest in slow-paced courses.
To keep these learners engaged, connect what they learn in class to what they’ll do in their careers. By demonstrating why study topics matter, you can make them enthusiastic about their courses while showing how their program provides a path for achieving their goals.
Supporting academically developing learners
Academically developing learners are more likely to encounter setbacks during their programs. But that doesn’t mean you should take a deficit-based approach to support. Instead, it raises the importance of using strength-based, appreciative advising.
By engaging these students before classes begin, you can identify strengths they’ll use throughout their academic program. Start by listening. To begin the conversation, gently ask about challenges they’ve faced and the strengths they used to solve them.
For instance, many academically developing learners are resilient, creative problem-solvers. Through appreciative advising, you can empower them to recognize these strengths and apply them when challenges arise.
These conversations don’t just help your learners develop strategies for success. They also help your advisors develop individual support plans that ensure students set goals — and stick with them.
When using individual support plans, it’s important to show learners they aren’t alone. Your advisors should outline ways they’ll help the student and follow through on these promises.
This commitment makes learners accountable to advisors and vice versa. And when your advisors meet their end of the bargain, students are more likely to meet theirs.
Note that individual support plans don’t just help academically developing learners. We use them to keep all students on track when unexpected hurdles arise.
For instance, it’s common for students to pause their courses to take a break for a vacation, and that’s fine. But you’ll need to keep them focused on returning and establishing an individual support plan helps make their reentry seamless.
When your advisors build a strong rapport with learners, it seems natural, not intrusive, when they check in during breaks. Believe it or not, some students even respond to our advisors by sending photos from vacations they’ve taken during breaks. This type of engagement shows the strong bond they formed with their advisor.
The goal is for each student to see taking a break as one milestone in their journey — one of many they’ll meet on their way to graduation.
Support each step of the student journey
Students cross many milestones as they advance through programs, and the progress they’ve made influences how you advise them. That makes sense, as you would support a student taking their first term differently than someone starting their last.
So, it helps to adapt your guidance based on where learners are in their journey. Here are ideas for supporting first-year, continuing, and graduating students.
These students need time to acclimate to their program. So, your advisors may need to take a “hands-on” approach at first.
That doesn’t mean your advisors should hold the first-year students’ hands. Instead, they should remind students about their strengths and, when needed, connect them with support services.
Your advisors don’t need to make this guidance overly formal. They may make more headway by turning advising into an enjoyable way for students to find their footing in programs. One idea is to invite students to virtual coffee chats where they relax while sharing their progress.
After students complete a few courses, they’ll likely be ready to spread their wings. Develop an advising cadence that meets their needs, meeting at least once per term. Sustaining this connection reinforces feelings of support and helps your advisors address unexpected challenges.
Scheduling a meeting midway through the student’s program gives them a chance to reflect on accomplishments. It’s also a way to build their confidence for the second half of their program.
Keep in mind that many students experience lifestyle changes after starting programs, such as changing jobs. The midpoint check-in lets you connect students with services that may not have applied when they started their program.
These students are so close to attaining an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s degree or certificate — but they aren’t there yet. Focus on planning for unexpected speedbumps that could impede their progress.
Be sure to use a celebratory tone when advising these students. They’ve accomplished a lot, and your advisors should be eager to congratulate them in ways that keep them motivated. For instance, reminding them about commencement is a subtle way to nudge them toward achieving their goal.
Assist with clinical and field placements
Online programs attract many students because they’re flexible. But hands-on experience benefits students and is required for some programs, such as nursing and social work degrees.
While these placements are essential, students often experience stress when seeking them. By making it easier to find and start clinical and field placements, you can help students stay engaged in their courses instead of worrying about logistics. Here are ways to get started:
Build a placement network
These networks help online learners find placements near their homes — even when they live far from your university.
Invest in administrative software
Use tools for managing which students need placements and following their progress toward meeting requirements. You can also use this software to manage relationships with preceptors.
Create a dedicated field placement team
Managing field placements is too daunting for anyone to handle alone. Starting a team ensures you have the specialized expertise and relationships needed to help students succeed in clinical and field environments.
Get creative in recruiting preceptors
Our research has found that 83% of preceptors would like an incentive. But that doesn’t mean they want a paycheck — 27% believe getting to teach is enough.
Your next steps
We’ve discussed many strategies in this article and implementing them can feel overwhelming. So, let’s recap some of the basics that your university should consider.
Collect robust student retention data
Many universities only track data to meet IPEDS obligations. But improving retention requires you to go further.
Be proactive, gathering data that helps tailor your support for each student. That includes observing student activity and analyzing data — not just year over year but term over term.
It’s also wise to pay attention to enrolled retention, or whether students currently take classes. Most universities have a large population of enrolled but inactive students. Identifying this population enables your advisors to plan how these students can resume their education.
With proactive advising, an inactive status won’t take you by surprise. As discussed earlier, you can set up an individual support plan that factors in breaks and the student’s return to class.
Shift to strength-based advising
When you help students identify their strengths, you can unlock their potential. Instead of merely correcting deficits, enable students to understand how their talents will help them succeed.
This approach demands proactive advising. Don’t wait for students to fall behind — engage them when they enroll to identify strengths they can use in their first class through graduation.
Proactive advising requires a dedicated team of professional advisors to assist students through their entire journey. This support frees up faculty to focus on what they do best — educating students.
Set incremental — and transparent — goals
You don’t have to solve every issue overnight. Instead, set realistic goals that would let you make incremental, impactful progress toward helping more students persist.
Be sure to engage your professors/faculty when setting goals to get their input on how advising should work. In our experience, faculty appreciate proactive advising more when universities make the benefits clear.
It’s also advantageous to share your retention strategy with students. Then they’ll know you care about their performance and strive to make them successful in their class and careers. When prospective students see how much you care about retention, it could boost your enrollment efforts, too.
Look for gaps in your student support
Auditing your student support practices goes a long way toward strengthening retention. Here are actions that can make a significant impact:
- Create a field placement network to streamline how students access in-person learning
- Establish mentoring programs to encourage students to learn from professionals in their field
- Offer online student services so that distance learners get the support they need
Our expert retention team helps universities implement these strategies every day. Through this support, our average retention and graduation rates outperform similar nonprofit online schools across four categories.
Are you ready to improve your retention strategy and strengthen student persistence? Contact us today to learn how we can help.