As the price of a college education escalates, universities are challenged to retain students who invest in their institution. Reportedly, only 60% of students graduate within 6 years of starting, which means 40% of students do not complete their college education. As a result, conversations about college students and long-term retention strategies are a top priority for universities. 

Behavior science principles can guide universities toward initiatives that work more broadly when working with human behavior. While large scale initiatives might be beneficial, small changes can have a remarkable and noticeable impact on college students and long-term retention. 

Here are some examples of principles from behavior science that can work well to help college students and long-term retention. 

Personalize messages 

A small but mighty tweak to campus communication is to personalize messages with a students name and other individualized information. When students feel like a person instead of a nobody and sense that the university cares about them as a person, their engagement deepens. Taking time to acknowledge their specific major or anything else specific to them will further enhance their engagement. In behavior science, this principle is known as reciprocity. 

Simplify financial aid

With financial challenges being the top predictor of student drop-out, Irrational Labs, a behavior design company, was hired to evaluate the FAFSA application process. After a thorough step-by-step evaluation of their application process and communication for West Texas A&M University, they were able to hypothesize that if their successful experiment was implemented nationwide, an additional 230,000 students would apply for student aid. In sum, almost 200 million additional dollars would go toward college students and long-term retention improvement.

Share stories

Students often feel like they are alone in their challenges. Their sense of isolation can lead to them withdrawing from college without seeking help when they need it. Sharing student testimonials on a regular basis can help students experience peer support on a deeper level. Their sense of community and connection deepens a student’s commitment to completing their education, knowing that others have overcome the same challenges. Sprinkling these testimonials into campus communication whenever possible will help college students and long-term retention rates. 

Reduce the hassle factor by pre-planning

Behavior science has shown that people are more likely to take action toward their goal if the behavior is easy. It also tells us that making decisions ahead of time increases the likelihood of following through on our desired behavior. Knowing these two principles work, make course enrollment easy. Communicate in advance about registration and consider recommending a few courses that would make sense for their course sequence. Encourage them to review the options, meet with their advisor, or make a decision about which courses to take. Then, prompt them to register immediately when registration opens.

Harnessing what is known about human behavior to help more students do what they want to do, which is to earn a degree, is a novel way to help college students and long-term retention efforts for universities. While these recommendations may not seem like traditional retention strategies, these small adjustments can yield a big impact while you’re implementing longer term strategic retention plans.