Using Technology to Improve College Retention Rates

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A possible solution to college low retention rates.

Submitted: December 08, 2011

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Submitted: December 08, 2011




Executive Summary


This report provides an analysis of the current problem colleges are having with low retention rates.  Studies show that there are numerous reasons for this problem including inability to afford tuition, inability to balance work and school, finding a social fit, and unpreparedness to handle college level workload.  Despite the reason, it is clear that this issue, if allowed to continue, would have a significant issue on the future.  This report will illustrate the implications that this issue would have on government spending, employers, students, and parents.  In addition, this topic has received significant press coverage.  For example, many of the press articles and scholarly journals seem to have some commonality in that they propose that schools must benchmark their performance with similar schools.  However, I believe that many of these articles are neglecting to consider the impact that using technology could have on solving the problem.  Ultimately, this paper seeks to propose how technology can contribute to improving the retention rates of America’s colleges and universities.





Many industries experience difficulties in retaining customers.  Some customers leave in response to dissatisfaction with the product or service, some are forced to leave since they no longer are able to afford the product or service, and some begin doing business with a company’s competitor(s).  Typically, the result of these changes are simply lower levels of revenue for the company; however, when the industry is higher education, schools not only lose money, but the country also experiences decreases in its percentage of educated labor force among other things.


Issue Identification


College students drop out for a variety of reasons.  According to a study conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, about 71 percent claim that their decision to leave school was in some way impacted by their inability to balance their jobs and classes.  31 percent admitted to no longer being able to afford the tuition.  Meanwhile, 21 percent just felt they needed a break from the classroom.  Other studies have shown that students also drop out of school as a result of homesickness, an inability to find a social fit and make social connections, and their inability to handle the challenging coursework, perhaps due to academic unpreparedness.  Yet other students attribute their absence to personal or family issues, lack of discipline or guidance that translates into excessive partying and/or drug use, and lastly, being academically disqualified.


The problem with so many students dropping out has also proven to be a costly one.  States lose hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in grants to students that do not return for their sophomore year.  For instance, in 2010, the state of Pennsylvania lost $232,900,000, which was the eleventh highest of the 50 states.  $56,000,000 of that amount is lost on the dropout of freshmen alone.In addition, According to the American Institute for research, college dropouts cost America $4.5 billion in lost earnings and lost federal and state taxes.  Furthermore, high levels of dropouts also result in thousands of college-aged students with significant loan debts and inadequate job skills to strive in today’s workplace.


This issue is a pressing issue in the United States.  It is so important, that President Barack Obama has begun contemplating how to improve the college retention rate among U.S. colleges in hopes that the United States will eventually be the world’s leader in education.  In 2009, he announced his $12 billion plan that he hopes would result in millions of additional college grads.  Though the problem is pressing in both community colleges and four-year colleges, the problem is more widespread among community colleges.  Nevertheless, four-year colleges still reveal alarming graduation numbers perhaps due to the imbalance in the amount of energy that is allocated to recruiting as opposed to retaining students. 


One study has found that approximately thirty percent of college and university students drop out during or after their freshman year.  Another has found that half of all incoming freshmen do not graduate, and of those that do, few graduate in the traditional 4 years.  Even more disturbing is the fact that these statistics have held true for several decades.


One statistic appears to truly portray how sever this problem is.  It states that out of 100 kids that enter American high schools, only about 20 will complete a bachelor’s degree within a decade.  Italy is the only developed country that is worse than the United States in its percentage of college students that do not graduate.  Of course some schools are worse than others.  Typically, Ivy League schools have significantly higher levels of retention.  This might reflect the more intense selection process, which is intended to ensure that the incoming students are prepared for their rigorous course work.  On the other hand, there are numerous schools such as The University of New Mexico, where up to 44 percent of students do not graduate.  For institutions whose purpose is to educate students, it is evident that they are struggling in achieving their mission.




This issue is important to a number of people.  On a micro level, it is important to the students who are enrolling in these places of higher learning and for whatever reason choosing to withdraw prior to graduation.  By doing so, these individuals are likely to earn significantly less than their classmates who do complete their college education.  In addition, the families of these dropouts often make investments, both financial and nonfinancial, that are lost if the student does not choose to stay in school.  Therefore, both parents and students care about this issue.


In addition, this problem is important to universities.  Tuition and fees are the primary revenue stream of colleges and universities.  Their purpose of existing is to educate and produce qualified individuals.  With dropouts being so prevalent, these institutions are failing to receive their highest level of revenues.  Dropouts leave the school with inefficiencies, as its classrooms are left unfilled, dorm rooms left vacant, and teachers underutilized.


On the macro level, this issue affects entire countries.  The vastness of this problem has a dire impact on a country’s future.  Lower numbers of educated individuals have a negative impact on the pool of available help.  Therefore, companies are forced to outsource or recruit individuals from other countries since they are unable to find qualified help in their own country.  This also may lead to high levels of unemployment if there are an abundance of uneducated, unemployed people yet few jobs with which they are qualified for.  Oftentimes, many of the jobs that do open up during these times of high unemployment require applicants to possess a degree.  Lastly, when this occurs, countries have many individuals working at minimum wage, on welfare, and the like.  Consequently, consumer spending is reduced along with a country’s GDP, of which consumer spending is a component.


It is critical that this problem be solved as quickly as possible.  In solving this problem, it is irrational to believe that there will no longer be students who drop out of college.  However, the percentage of dropouts should certainly be significantly less than half of all entrants.  The stakeholders in this problem also stand to benefit greatly from resolving this issue.  Obviously, solving this problem would result in higher graduation rates.  This would increase the revenues of colleges and universities by ensuring that students stayed enrolled in school longer, allowing the institutions to collect tuition and other fees.  In addition, increasing the percentage of students that “walk across the stage” would begin a domino effect.  It would first provide a larger pool of educated, skilled labor, which will allow American employers to expand their operations without the need to recruit abroad.  The economy would then benefit from the higher levels of consumer spending that would result from the increase in the salaries of many Americans, who under current circumstances, would have felt the need to drop out of college.  Furthermore, the government would be able to collect additional tax dollars without an increase in the tax rate.  The increase in the incomes of these individuals would be significant as would the tax revenues of the U.S., which could then be utilized to lower the deficit or invested into various other things.


On the other hand, if this problem is allowed to persist, the future may only become worse.  It has already been revealed that the government must become increasingly cautious in how it invests its money considering the billions of dollars of debt that it has accrued.  Considering this, learning how to invest wisely and increase its revenues is critical.  However, if a solution is not found pertaining to how to lower the number of college dropouts, thereby increasing the number of college graduates, then the country would continue to provide grants to students whom may or may not even make it to their sophomore year.  In addition, they would be forgoing billions in revenue despite their dire need for money.  This may then cause for lower levels of government spending in college education, which will then result in fewer students being able to afford college, and thus, lower numbers of graduates.  This lower level of assistance for paying for college would come during a terrible time, for as the level of assistance is decreasing, the cost of education is and will be continually increasing.  Therefore, scholarships and grants are likely to be even more important in the future.


If colleges and universities do not find a solution for their retention problem, they stand to lose out on millions in revenue.  In addition, they risk these drop out rates increasing if they do not take preventative action.  Traditional colleges and universities also risk further suffering if online colleges become more popular and respected, which may attract a portion of their students. On the other end of the spectrum, employers, which are the customers of college’s products, educated college graduates, will be forced to continue to recruit from a smaller labor force of talented and educated individuals.  Moreover, it is possible that they may have to settle for less ideal candidates if the number of employers grows faster than the availability of educated labor.


Lastly, if this problem is not addressed, students who will become dropouts will continue to waste money, incur debt, and forgo years of revenue by starting an education that they will not be able to complete.  While some may be challenged and learn from their brief stay in college, others will have essentially wasted their time and investments doing something that, due to the lack of time and/or effort, will reap them no benefits.  Likewise, the parents of these students would continue to lose out on their investments. 


Press Coverage


Today it is nearly impossible to ignore the fact that colleges and universities are having difficulty in retaining students.  This issue has been discussed in numerous forms of press, and has also been addressed directly by the government, including the president of the United States.  Regardless of the form of press in which this issue is discussed, it is unanimously agreed that this is indeed a problem that must be addressed.


In a 2009 article from the New York Times by David Leonhardt, entitled “Colleges Are Failing in Graduation Rates”, the author quotes an economist, Mark Schneider, who “refers to colleges with such drop out rates as “failure factories”.  He attributes this problem in part to the “inadequate precollege education”.  In essence, he claims that increasing college retention, and thereby the number of college graduates, requires not only actions taken by colleges and universities, but also an increased effort by American’s education system as a whole.


Furthermore, the author stated that an additional problem was that colleges were not being held accountable for their failures; in this case, a failure is identified as students who enroll and attend school, but fail to graduate.  In fact, that article suggests that colleges and universities do not have many financial reasons to produce college graduates.  Besides accruing additional revenue the longer that a student is in school, it is also relatively cheaper for institutions of higher learning to pay one professor to teach a large lecture class, than it is to pay a professor to teach the upperclassmen courses which tend to have smaller class sizes.


Additional Insight


Colleges and universities’ retention problems have also drawn the attention of College Board, which is a non-profit organization that is “committed to excellence and equity in education.”  In April 2009, College Board released its research findings and described the flaws in the way colleges address their retention problem.  The first discovery that the study made was that colleges often did not adequately invest in what was their most crucial task, ensuring that students remained in school and were educated.  Though the majority of the schools were found to have mandated that students meet with academic advisors at least once per term, many of these advisers were faculty members who were not directly compensated for their extra role as advisor.  Therefore, many of these advisors lacked the incentive to genuinely connect with their students and motivate them.  In addition, though 60 percent of the colleges had a designated retention coordinator, less than one-third of the coordinators served in full-time positions.  Furthermore, even fewer were given the authority to adjust the budget or to implement new policies or programs.


The College Board study also discovered that higher education institutions desperately need benchmarks.  Currently, colleges are operating under the false pretense that there are “one size fits all” solutions; however, studies have proven that students retention and attrition rates are different among schools of different sizes, as well as classification, as in public, private, or community college.  Therefore, the College Board suggests that additional surveys be conducted to establish a basis for which to accurately judge the status of a school’s retention rate, and the effectiveness of its endeavors to improve its rate.


The findings of the College Board study are clearly seen in the case of Western Michigan University.  On WMU’s website, the university describes its plans to improve its student retention.  Among the top of the list are vague tasks such as “appoint a recruitment and retention facilitator”, though it gives no details regarding the responsibilities and the authority that this individual will be given.  Furthermore, it mentions very generic changes including they will improve the advising process, endeavor to be more student-friendly, will make efforts to celebrate student achievement, and professors will be encouraged to become better acquainted with students and to go the “extra mile”.  Though these goals and changes sound remarkable, they all lack measurability and therefore appear to be inadequate.


However, further down the page there is mention of quantifiable goals.  Such goals include establishing a freshman to sophomore goal retention goal of 86 percent for the College of Aviation, a 12 percent increase.  Also, the College of Engineering has proclaimed “the freshman to sophomore retention rate will grow over the next four years to 75% retained within the college and 85% retained in the university; and six-year graduation rate will grow to 50%.”  Again, these goals seem to be improvements, but they also appear to be random estimates.  In addition, this school has decentralized its retention efforts allowing for each school to develop its own methods and goals.  In other words, WMU’s approach is individualistic in that they are admitting that each school’s problem’s may be unique.  According to College Board, schools like Western Michigan University must make realistic goals after benchmarking with similar schools and adopting practices that have proven to work on schools similar to their own.


Another approach to solving this problem comes from the Community College Journal of Research and Practice.  Though their perspective specifically considers community colleges, much of Linda Wild and Larry Ebbers’s research could be applied to colleges in general.  They identify one approach to be “developing indicators”.  They believe that a major component of low retention rates in schools is that students are unable to handle the course work due to the intensity of it and/or the necessity of balancing it with their work schedule.  Thus they propose that colleges should conduct studies in which students are grouped together by academic similarities or by the nature of their jobs, and that indicators are recorded and analyzed that may suggest how many credit hours students in a particular major are able to take; which subjects are likely to prove difficult if taken together; if a student works 30 hours a week, how many classes are they capable of handling; etc.  By tracking these indicators, colleges would be able to adjust their advising and curriculum accordingly.


The study also suggests that the schools create learning programs that require a commitment from students.  In other words, schools should create more programs that students can join that provide formal structure to the learning process and require students to study for predetermined amounts of hours a week.  These programs will increase the student’s engagement while providing a structure for him or her to benefit from.  Along with learning programs, the college should provide tutoring or supplemental learning programs to assist those students who may not grasp the information as easily.  Though the tutoring sessions typically target the at-risk students, the supplemental programs are traditionally for difficult classes and attempt to teach the information using an alternative approach as opposed to reiterating the in-class lesson.


Lastly, this study provided several additional steps that colleges and universities should make.  For example, it suggested that schools identify or recruit a qualified individual that has a broad-based understanding of the curriculum, student support, retention research, and clearly understands and is able to make the appropriate changes to achieve the retention goals of the school.  He or she then needs to ensure that the school’s retention goals are realistic based off of data collected, and that the practices that have been known to work in similar institutions or within particular departments of the college are implemented widely.  They also suggest that colleges examine their recruitment and admission policies and practices in case there are flaws in the type of individuals they are admitting into the university.  Finally, Wild and Ebbers suggest that the staff should be informed of the retention goals and trained as how to better serve the students; meanwhile their should be an early warning system so that at-risk students are identified early and efforts can be made to save the student.


Another reliable source in the higher education realm, the ACT, also conducted a study in hopes of determining how schools could combat the high levels of drop out rates.  In some ways, the ACT’s findings are in alignment with many of the other studies.  It first suggests that school’s should identify its students characteristics and needs, create organizational priorities that are in alignment with those needs, identify what resources it has available, assess other successful retention programs, and then, given all of that information, develop a comprehensive retention program.  It also advocates the need for an early alert system based on scores on college-entry exams, first semester GPAs, attendance records, and socioeconomic factors.  Lastly, it recommends that some form of performance evaluation be created by which the school can analyze its level of success and the cost of its plan.  In addition, the evaluation should provide strategies by which to address the problem if their initial plan fails.


Where the ACT’s study differs however is that it recommends that just as important as it is for the school to look into the academic factors causing the low retention rate, it is equally important for the institution to address the non-academic factors.  According to the study, these factors should be taken into “the design and development of programs to create a socially inclusive and supportive academic environment that addresses the social, emotional, and academic needs of students.”  The prevalent non-academic factors that appear to be most influential in a student’s success at college include “self-confidence, achievement motivation, institutional commitment, and social support.”  By using questionnaires and surveys to identify where students are in regards to categories like these, colleges can provide them with programs that specialize in helping people with these sorts of social issues.  The authors of this study, Veronica A. Lotkowsi, Steven B. Robbins, and Richard J. Noeth believe that by integrating the solution by addressing the non-academic factors as well as the academic factors, colleges stand the best chance of actually achieving sustainable improvements to their student retention programs.


Lastly, Stanford University Associate Professor Eric Bettinger, along with the help of his doctoral student Rachel Baker, have discovered that coaching has an important role as well.  According to Bettinger and his study, “the results are clear:  coaching had a clear impact on retention and completion rates.”  After observing groups of coached and non-coached students progress through college, he discovered that coached students had a retention rate that was 10-15 percent higher than non-coached students.  Amazingly, he also found this to be a cheaper approach.  For instance, he found that increasing financial aid by $1,000 increased persistence by 3 percentage points, whereas coaching, which cost nearly the same for two semesters, increased it by five percentage points.


In essence, all of these studies have found college retention to be a major issue requiring significant reformation by colleges and universities.  While all agree that there must be benchmarks, training, and accountability in a solution, some seem to also stress the importance of non-academic factors being largely influential.



Human Resource Implications


Obviously, how to retain college students is not a topic that is often discussed in the classroom; however, retention is often discussed.  Professors often lecture on ways in which organizations can adjust in order to retain more customers and more employees.  This leads to an interesting question.  Despite college students being the customers of colleges and universities, is it necessary to tailor the approach to retaining college students in the model of retaining customers or employees.  Traditional customer related factors such as price, available products (majors), and quality of service are also very important to students.  Nevertheless, several factors that typically apply to employees are essential to students as well.  These factors include organizational culture, values, and reputation.  Ultimately, retention implies another business concept, customer satisfaction.  An organization’s ability to retain a customer is often a direct result of that customer’s satisfaction with that company and/or product.  In the educational setting, it is a reflection of the student’s satisfaction with the school’s culture, faculty, and the degree of education that he or she is receiving.


Improving student retention and satisfaction often requires some level of change.  Organization change is another complex business concept that inspires many theories.  Nevertheless, when colleges and other types of organizations commit to making changes, they typically also encounter several stages.  These stages include resistance, uncertainty, experimentation, transition, and integration.  Success in each of these stages is critical for a company to effectively implement change.


In addition to the traditional business concepts, many individuals are attributing the high drop out rates to the issues of inadequate high school education and low student engagement in college.  In fact, there have been several studies concerning the impact of student engagement and their retention.  One study conducted by The National Survey of Student Engagement found that “highly engaged students are more likely to reenroll in school the following year.”  This would suggest that schools should turn their attention to increasing student engagement, thereby increasing retention.  Likewise, a study by Paul D. Umbach and Matthew R. Wawrzynski found a strong correlation between a student’s level of engagement with faculty and the students’ persistence in school.


Ultimately, there have been a variety of opinions as to how to address the retention problem that is common in today’s institutions of higher learning.  Though it is possible that there is one major cause of this problem, it is more likely that there is a combination of factors that is responsible for the low retention.  Nevertheless, one thing that is agreed upon is that much research is still needed and a solution is long overdue.




Today, technology has become a critical component of everyday lives.  It has helped difficult and sometimes even impossible tasks become routine.  Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that technology could have a positive impact on a student’s college experience, and in many ways it already has.  Currently, college students register for classes, submit applications, pay tuition, and submit homework online.  Students also have the ability to have virtually face-to-face conversations with their families and friends despite being miles away at school.  In essence, technology has eased the education process and the stress that is associated with it, but perhaps technology is able to have an even greater impact.


A current trend that has attracted much attention in the past couple of years has been social media.  Companies have begun using social media to advertise their company and/or its products and make announcements.  The sites also mine the data for use by other companies.  This information could be useful to colleges and universities.  The mined data in conjunction with personality tests issued upon receiving the students’ decision to attend could be used for various reasons.  For instance, in order to make dorm and roommate assignments, students’ hometowns, personality traits, and interests could be used, not to match students that are alike, but to match students whose characteristics seem to produce successful rooming assignments.  These complementary characteristics or attractive combinations would be derived from mining the characteristics of past rooming assignments.  The data would reflect which roommate assignments proved successful and which proved disastrous.  Eventually a more accurate pattern would develop.


Several of the previously mentioned reasons that students do not complete school include: needing a break from school, homesickness, inability to find a social fit and make social connections, lack of discipline or guidance.  These causes would play less of a role if students did not face problems getting along with roommates.  Their roommates would give them a support base away from home, also could encourage them to succeed in school, and give them an incentive to stay in school.  Furthermore, mentors with similar backgrounds and interest, identified through mining social media and personality data would be assigned to ensure mentors were someone whom that particular student would respect and could relate to.  These mentors would not only be comprised of current, but should also include graduate students.


Another major problem that students revealed was affordability and balancing school alongside a job.  Similar to data mining the social media and roommate success/failure rates, universities could begin to data mine the financial and academic data that they have collected.  This data could then be organized according to a student’s major in order to give students more realistic advisement.  For instance, academic advisors could make recommendations on how many credits a student should take based on how many hours the student feels he or she needs to cover his or her expenses.  This information would be derived from the information collected from past students in the same field.  The data would assist students in balancing their work and study loads.  Though students would be allowed to take more than the recommended amount, it would simply give students an opportunity to realistically evaluate if they are overestimating their ability to take the maximum number of credits with a side job.  Though this might require some students to take longer to complete their education, it will certainly prevent the frustration and stress that many students face after realizing they are not capable of working full-time and remaining a full-time student.


Finally, technology could be further used to improve the accessibility of information to students.  Young adults, and people in general, seem greatly receptive to advancements in technology, and therefore have greatly embraced them.  Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that students would benefit academically from more information being stored and made available digitally so that it can be easily synced to their electronic devices.  For instance, though it is certainly environmentally friendly and convenient for a professor’s syllabus to be posted online, students and their grades might better benefit from a syllabus that automatically can be downloaded into a smartphone, laptop, or pad device.  After downloading the syllabus, the professor’s contact information would be stored in the student’s address book.  Furthermore, the due dates for assignments and exams would be similarly stored in the calendar applications of the student’s devices where the student could even set up reminders.  By doing so, the student could easily contact the professor, but also could ensure that they do not miss assignments and could allot sufficient time to complete assignments; all of which have the potential to lead to higher grades.


Grades may also improve as a result of students being given the opportunity and incentive to help one another.  The setting would be like a forum in which students are allowed to post questions or concepts that they don’t understand.  Then students can respond to one another’s questions if they feel they have the answer.  By doing so the students are able to potentially learn from an alternative view than that of the professor’s, one that the student might understand better.  If the question is not answered after a designated amount of time, or other students seem to be giving wrong answers, the teacher will have insight as to what to cover in more detail, as well as the ability to answer more than one students’ question at a time.  It also helps since some students are too timid to ask questions in class, while others do not know what questions to ask or, rather, are unaware of what they do not know.  In order to incentivize the students to participate and ask questions, students could receive points for being the first student to correctly answer another student’s question and also for attending class.  Each week, the student with the most points could be named that week’s “class genius” and might receive an academic or social reward as chosen by the teacher.  For instance, a student may receive extra credit for being “class genius” for a week.


In an attempt to improve the engagement of the students, an app could be created that allows students to see all of the activities that are happening each day at school.  Not only would the school sponsored academic and sporting events be listed, but also study groups and similar interest clubs.  This will help ensure that each student finds a core group with whom they identify with and have a feeling of belonging.  Similar to foursquare, students’ attendance could be encouraged and tracked through a monthly reward system that might include preferred parking spots, line-skipping privileges, etc.  This will increase the involvement of the students and ensure that they are finding an identity within the school.



Ultimately, discovering how to improve college retention rates will require a complex, multifaceted solution.  However, it is safe to say that technology certainly will be a component of that solution.  Though it cannot have an impact on all of the causes of low retention rates, such as high costs and student preparedness, technology is able to impact many of the others. Therefore, technology should be a major focus for colleges and universities.  Though it may require significant levels of change, the problem and students needs it.



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