The pandemic threw universities for a loop as educators scrambled to deliver their promised services to their students. Despite best efforts, many students opted out of higher ed, some for the time being and others permanently. Colleges are still rebounding while continuing to wrestle with the ongoing question of how to retain college students.

Traditionally, higher education has focused on two primary areas to retain college students, providing academic interventions and creating a sense of belonging. How a student integrates into campus, academically and socially, is critical to a student’s success. According to CampusGroups, students who don’t graduate often head down a path leading to lower-paying jobs, fewer professional opportunities and increased challenges and limitations to their future ability to contribute in their community. Understanding college student retention best practices and implementing them effectively impacts the wellbeing of students and universities.  

Onboard well  

First impressions matter. For incoming students, orientation programs should be well designed  with the focus on building a foundation of academic and social success. Programming should offer virtual components that are accessible to all students and promote social connection even at a distance. It’s important to onboard returning students to a new year as well. Provide the same opportunities for these students to engage, connect, and re-orient themselves to the campus, each other, and any new policies your school might have in place. Educating them about support resources and making them readily available will improve the likelihood they will use them when they need them. 

Build connections 

The relationships that develop between students and faculty are vital. To retain college students, provide opportunities for these groups to connect. While some of these relationships will grow organically, some students may be more comfortable getting to know professors and staff in a casual, facilitated, or organized space. A mentoring program is one example of a more structured way to connect students with faculty and staff. Always give consideration to first generation college students and international students who may have different needs than others on campus.

Early intervention

Identifying students who are at-risk is a critical component to retain college students who might otherwise disenroll. Noticing students who are struggling academically and having a plan for coming alongside them quickly will play a significant role in their retention. Equipping resident advisors and directors to notice social isolation and other signs of emotional struggle is equally important. Provide strong training and mental health resources for helping these students and encourage leaders to intervene early.

Encourage connection

Finding and building community became increasingly difficult during the pandemic, especially for students on large campuses. An effective student retention strategy is to create small groups for students to get to know each other better. Whether it’s through clubs, Greek life, or peer mentorship programs, creating spaces where students can find a sense of belonging with others in a more intimate way is a key factor to retain college students. The right technology can provide a bridge for those who may be separated by distance as well. 

While the answer to how to retain college students continues to be providing good academic interventions and a sense of belonging, the strategies for doing so will continue to evolve as the educational landscape changes during the pandemic and beyond.