According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 75% of students who started college in the fall of 2020 returned for their second year in 2021, representing an increase of 1.1 percentage points in student persistence.
However, forward-thinking higher learning leaders are not resting on their laurels regarding student retention.
The persistence rate for 2021 was lower than pre-pandemic levels of 75.9%. Faculty burnout, recent learning disruptions, and high levels of social isolation threaten student retention in the longer term.
When student enrollments are diving, it’s essential to sustain the size of the overall student population. On top of doing more to attract new students, it’s critical to keep students who are already there.
The reasons why students abandon their studies are evolving in light of recent disruptions. In 2021, the Lumina Foundation partnered with Gallup to understand how the pandemic impacted US adults’ perception of higher learning.
According to the study, about one-third of students in higher education reported struggling to stay enrolled during the academic year. The top reasons why these students considered stopping their coursework included emotional stress, cost of attendance, COVID-19, and academic struggles.
New stressors have emerged for students that can increase their chances of leaving, but new solutions to retain them have also emerged.
Thanks to edtech advances, institutions now have access to AI-powered tutors, mobile learning apps, virtual reality, and data-generated insights. These tools can make learning more accessible, effective, and engaging. Technology can also help with retention’s non-academic aspects, including enabling remote mental health support and distributing financial aid.
To boost college retention rates, many higher learning leaders focus on using tech tools while also building a culture where students from various backgrounds can thrive.
Here’s a look at three key trends impacting student persistence, how colleges are addressing them, and how these approaches generate results:
The abrupt shift to online learning and other pandemic-induced disruptions continued to impact learning even after institutions returned to normal operations. Between 2020 and 2021, the proportion of students who stated that challenging coursework was why they considered leaving college jumped by 10%, according to the Lumina Foundation/Gallup report.
Post-pandemic learning loss is a top concern for faculty, students, and higher learning leaders. This can explain why technology research firm Gartner is seeing a surge in demand for tutoring software. Online tutoring marketplaces, in particular, can provide students with the personalized learning, access, and flexibility they need to catch up.
Another way institutions are academically supporting students is through digital content. College students feel more secure, confident, and prepared for academic challenges when they have all the textbooks, journals, and other content they need right at the start of a course. Jackson College and WSU Tech, for example, both provide students with digital textbooks via BibliU’s Universal Learning platform to ensure that every student has the content they need to succeed on the first day of class.
Colleges are tuning into students’ specific needs and offering targeted financial support to encourage cash-strapped students to persist with their studies.
Amarillo College, for example, took a data-informed approach to help students experiencing financial hardship. It used the insights from online student surveys to guide decisions about the distribution of emergency aid. The result? In five years, the college nearly doubled its graduation and transfer rate.
Helping students see the value in their educational investments is also critical. At Cleveland Community College, students often have job offers before they finish, and this college grew as others were shrinking. When students see the value in their college degree, their investment seems less risky.
Of course, practical professional development is only one reason why students attend college. Intellectual enrichment, particularly for four-year liberal arts students, matters too. This is where a strong emphasis on academic advising is helping students shape their learning experience in a way that provides value to them — on their terms.
By a long shot, emotional stress is the number one reason students consider calling it quits. Students “are about twice as likely to cite stress as they are to report the three next-most reported reasons (the pandemic, cost of attendance, and coursework difficulty),” states the Lumina Foundation/Gallup report.
In 2020, many higher learning institutions experienced a tripling or quadrupling in the number of students seeking accommodations for mental health disorders. This follows a gradual increase in mental health issues among young people over the previous decade.
The issues are particularly acute among specific student groups. Problems associated with the rising rates of loneliness and social isolation among young people, in general, are magnified for students who belong to marginalized and underrepresented groups.
Many of these students are also struggling with persistence. According to the Lumina Foundation/Gallup report, historically “marginalized students, including American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian and multiracial students, are most likely to report it was very difficult or difficult to remain enrolled.”
Proactive higher learning institutions provide faculty with digital content platforms or apps for directing students to the appropriate mental health support systems. As Amy Gatto, Senior Manager of Higher Ed & Evaluation at Active Minds, noted during this podcast about mental health, instead of going to the counseling center, a minoritized student might confide in a faculty member — so instructors need to be prepared.
Edtech is not a silver bullet — but it can be an essential part of a more comprehensive strategy to improve student retention after an intense disruption. Along with supportive campus culture and a commitment to learning equity, technological innovations can help students build resilience and get back on their feet.
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