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6 key factors influencing student retention in higher education

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February 7, 2024
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One in four students will either leave one college for another or not return at all within their first year. While this number is on the rise from previous years, there’s still a growing concern about things institutions can do to retain their students. 

In the face of these challenges, higher education institutions are increasingly seeking innovative and effective strategies to enhance student retention and ensure academic success. The key to addressing this issue lies in understanding the multifaceted reasons behind student attrition and implementing targeted interventions that cater to the diverse needs of the student body. 

The article examines critical factors impacting student retention in higher education and illustrates how integrating practical, real-life learning experiences can improve student outcomes and foster a more supportive and engaging learning environment.

Key takeaways

  • Academic engagement is crucial to improve student retention, with a significant percentage of students and educators identifying engagement as a challenge they currently face in the classroom.
  • Technology and accessible learning resources are critical to ensuring student success and retention in education.
  • Student retention requires a holistic approach, incorporating innovative strategies and practical experiences to help students overcome the complex challenges they face.

1. Academic engagement

Academic engagement plays a critical role in influencing student retention in higher education. In fact, 53% of students and 66% of educators identify engagement as a consistent challenge

According to research, engaged students make better academic progress, consider further education opportunities after graduation, and are more likely to continue academic studies. It is, therefore, crucial to foster a learning environment in which students are not only active participants but also active learners.

To combat engagement challenges, several strategies have been identified as effective in increasing academic engagement. These include:

  • Interactive teaching methods: Techniques such as flipped classrooms, problem-based learning, and the use of technology in education engage students more deeply with the course material, encouraging active rather than passive learning.
  • Collaborative projects: Working on authentic work-based learning projects allows students to engage with their peers and industry professionals, offering them a platform to share ideas, challenge each other, and develop critical teamwork skills that are essential for their future careers.
  • Personalized learning experiences: Tailoring learning experiences to meet individual student needs and preferences ensures that education is accessible and engaging for every student, thereby enhancing their academic involvement.

2. Campus environment

A positive and inclusive campus environment is essential for fostering student retention in higher education. An institution's ambiance and sense of community play a significant role in whether a student decides to remain there. 

This environment encompasses not only the physical aspects of a campus but also the social and emotional support systems that contribute to a student's overall well-being and sense of belonging. In fact, there is a direct correlation between improved retention and graduation rates and a supportive campus environment

Students who feel a strong sense of community and belonging are more likely to be engaged, persist through challenges, and ultimately succeed in their academic endeavors.

Several initiatives can significantly contribute to creating a supportive campus culture, such as:

  • Inclusion and diversity programs: Diversity programs are essential for fostering a sense of belonging among students, especially those from underrepresented groups. These programs can include workshops, speaker series, and cultural events that celebrate and educate on diversity, equity, and inclusion, helping to build a supportive environment where every student feels valued and understood.
  • Student organizations: Membership in student organizations provides an opportunity for students to meet peers with similar interests and backgrounds. Whether based on academic, cultural, recreational, or social interests, these organizations provide vital opportunities for engagement, leadership development, and community building.
  • Mental health services: Accessible and robust mental health services are critical for supporting students' well-being. Counseling services, stress management workshops, and peer support groups can play pivotal roles in helping students navigate the challenges of higher education, ensuring they have the emotional and psychological support they need.

3. Financial factors

It’s no secret that students face numerous financial challenges in their pursuit of education, and these play an important role in preventing students from completing degree programs. Tuition fees, student loans, and other associated educational expenses pose significant barriers to enrollment, resulting in students having to choose between continuing their education or meeting their immediate financial obligations. 

Students often question the return on investment of their education, which contributes to high attrition rates due to financial strain, according to research

A comprehensive approach to financial support can significantly mitigate the impact of economic barriers on students, such as offering scholarships and grants, employing students through work-study programs, and having access to financial advising services.

To further support students financially, institutions can adopt several strategic initiatives:

  • Ensure that students are well-informed about financial aid opportunities, application deadlines, and eligibility criteria through clear and proactive communication.
  • Streamline the application process for financial aid, making it easier for students to apply for and receive the support they need.
  • Establish emergency financial assistance programs, such as short-term loans or grants, to provide a safety net for students facing unexpected financial crises.
  • Develop financial literacy programs to equip students with the skills to manage their finances effectively, both during their time in higher education and beyond.

4. Mental health

The challenges of academic demands, social expectations, and the transition to adulthood can take a significant toll on students' mental well-being. It’s well documented that poor mental health is closely linked to decreased student retention, noting that students who experience improvements in their mental health are significantly less likely to withdraw from their studies.

To ensure students receive the support they need to navigate the complexities of college life, effective mental health programs are an integral part of a comprehensive student retention plan. Institutions can implement a variety of services and programs, such as:

  • Counseling support: These services can offer individual or group therapy, crisis intervention, and referrals to external mental health resources, providing accessible, professional counseling services for students in need.
  • Mental health first aid training: This training equips faculty and staff with the skills to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness or substance abuse.
  • Stress management programs: These programs, including workshops on time management, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques, can equip students with the tools they need to manage stress effectively.
  • Wellness initiatives: Holistic wellness initiatives that address the physical, emotional, and mental health of students can foster a supportive campus environment. 

5. Academic resources 

The provision of accessible and effective learning resources is crucial for fostering student success and promoting student retention in higher education. A wide range of academic support services plays a pivotal role in enhancing students' learning outcomes and their persistence through challenging courses and programs.

Various forms of academic support play a vital role in this regard, each offering unique benefits that cater to diverse student needs. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common.

Tutoring and learning centers

Tutoring services provide personalized assistance to students, helping them grasp complex concepts, improve study habits, and enhance their understanding of course material. Learning centers, on the other hand, provide students with academic resources and study techniques, including workshops and skill-building sessions.

By fostering a community of learners, learning centers help students feel more connected and supported in their academic endeavors.

Digital resources

The role of technology in education has become increasingly prominent, offering new ways to access information and learn. Digital resources, such as online databases, e-books, and educational platforms, provide flexible learning opportunities that students can access anytime, anywhere. 

These resources are particularly valuable in accommodating diverse learning styles and schedules, making education more inclusive and accessible.

Enhancing learning experiences with technology

Technology not only makes educational resources more accessible but also enhances the learning experience through interactive and engaging tools. Virtual classrooms, online learning platforms, and educational apps facilitate dynamic learning environments that are adaptable to individual learning preferences, fostering active engagement and a deeper understanding of the topic.

The integration of technology in education not only makes learning more engaging but also prepares students for the digital landscape of the modern workforce.

Complementing traditional resources with real-world experiences

The majority of students desire to have access to authentic, on-the-job learning experiences during the course of their education. Platforms like Riipen offer a unique complement to traditional academic resources by bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical, real-world application. 

Riipen connects students with companies to work on real projects, providing valuable hands-on experience that enhances learning and prepares students for their future careers. This practical exposure not only reinforces academic concepts but also enables students to develop sought-after skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, and adaptability.

By integrating platforms like these with traditional academic support services, institutions can offer a more holistic and effective approach to learning. Increasing student employability enhances academic success and ensures that education is relevant and valuable in today's job market.

6. Career development opportunities

Providing students with clear pathways for career growth and reinforcing the value of their educational investment are essential to improve student retention in higher education. These opportunities can help institutions keep students engaged and committed to their studies by integrating them into their retention strategies.

Internships stand out as a key component of career development, offering students valuable real-world experience that bridges the gap between academic theory and practical application. However, internships are becoming increasingly scarce with 41.3% of students reporting that they could not secure an internship.

Institutions are trying to find ways to circumvent this growing problem by incorporating experiential learning and work-based learning projects into their curriculum. Higher education institutions can provide students with hands-on learning opportunities that complement academic learning and enhance employment prospects by connecting them to real industry projects.

Career counseling and job placement services also play pivotal roles in guiding students through their career paths. These initiatives help to meet the growing request for more career readiness in higher ed institutions. 

By integrating career development opportunities into their student retention strategies, institutions can demonstrate a commitment to student success and differentiate themselves from other educational providers.

Leveraging work-based learning to enhance retention

The best way to keep students in higher education is to take a holistic approach that addresses all the factors that impact their educational journey. 

Among these strategies, work-based learning stands out as a positive solution that can address almost every one of these barriers. Innovating solutions like Riipen allow students to gain practical, real-world experience that directly supports their academic learning.

By offering projects from a diverse range of industries and organizations, Riipen ensures that students from all disciplines can find opportunities that resonate with their interests and career goals, indirectly contributing to creating a more inclusive and engaging learning experience.

Riipen also directly addresses the need for career development opportunities by offering students the chance to work on projects that develop skills demanded by employers. This practical experience is invaluable for students' resumes and professional development, bridging the gap between academic learning and career readiness.

In fact, the majority of students who have participated in projects through Riipen have grown their professional networks, gained skills that made them more employable, and have seen an increase in job offers.

Students from Arizona State University have said that the experiences “are really good gateways for better understanding the work environment, load, and expectation.” 

By integrating work-based learning into their academic programs, educators can provide students with invaluable experiences that contribute to their personal and professional growth.

Find out more about how Riipen helps address student retention issues. Schedule a free demo

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