Some Thoughts on Approaching Student Success and Retention

By Bill Bradfield


Investment in help desks and counseling services are almost always a student success/retention investment. There are three types of activities that schools need to undertake to help resolve the student success and retention issues they face: proactive efforts, pre-emptive efforts and reactive efforts. In reverse order:

  • Reactive Efforts – these comprise the majority of the “retention” or “student success” activities on campus today. They are basically alarms generated by software such as “Starfish” that advise administrators that a student has gotten into academic trouble (Sally isn’t participating, or John has stopped attending class). Reactive services (where the majority of retention money is being spent) is a “horse is out of the barn” investment. They have about a 5% success rate and provide great anecdotes about student success. “Sally was beginning to drift away, and we got her back engaged!!” Very expensive, spotty results.
  • Preemptive Efforts – This is the domain of academic coaches. In this scenario, a student is under-qualified (academically, maturity, emotionally) and needs intervention. The coaching is expensive but can be extremely effective.
  • Proactive Efforts – University processes and procedures can be arcane. Not the people, but the tools and processes they live with. On the other hand, many students have very poor coping skills (i.e. problems and roadblocks cause them to “quit”). Problems with IT or financial aid will cause a number of students to surrender. In fact, the Educational Policy Institute estimates that 30%+ of the current national student retention problem is caused by student feeling that “the college doesn’t care about them.”… and that relates specifically to students being able to get basic services…. Conveniently and effectively.

The basic premise of this is that schools need to streamline their processes and methods to get help. Students are looking for customer service. The combination of poor service from the schools and poor coping skills from the students causes students to not succeed.

When looking for an ROI on student services improvement, schools need to include it as part of their overall student success effort. I have been asked by many schools administrators, “which should I focus on? Proactive, Preemptive or Reactive?” My answer is that it is not a choice, you need to do it all and improving student services is at the heart of it.