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The Retention Dilemma with Graduate Programs

The Retention Dilemma with Graduate Programs

When you think about student attrition, is it ever in the context of graduate school?

Probably not, but you should.  Undergrad retention rates hover around 50% and the same goes for masters and doctoral students.

Colleges and Universities are more focused on their undergraduate attrition than what is happening in their graduate programs.   I had the fortunate circumstance of attending the Annual Meeting for the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools in early March (which, by the way, is a fantastic group of people) where I had conversations with several Deans of graduate programs spread from Maryland to Texas.  The conversations were overwhelmingly similar.  Each one sharing they would love to have a retention solution similar to what their undegraduate counterpart currently has, but they don’t have the student numbers in their grad program to justify the cost.

Let’s pause and think about this for a minute.  One particular institution comes to mind that has 20,000 undergrads and 4,000 graduate students.  If this institution is experiencing an overall attrition rate of 20% annually for both programs, then they are looking at losing 4000 undergrad and 800 graduate students.  Seems to make sense to focus on the larger number, but losing 800 graduate students results in a $7.2m loss in tuition revenue for this particular institution.

Through my discussions, the predominant reasons I am hearing their institutions are not investing in a retention solution are:

  • Less Return on Investment when compared to undergrad
  • An assumption that students who leave cannot handle the academic rigor, so we should allow for this natural attrition
  • An assumption that some students leave because they’ve chosen a different career direction, which usually involves gainful full time employment

Let’s break these down…

Less Return on Investment when compared to undergrad

It’s hard to find numbers on loss in tuition revenue for graduate programs.  An Educational Policy Institute report shows a loss in tuition revenue for undergrad at $16.5B, so I’m guessing if graduate programs are experiencing a 50% attrition rate the financial loss there is still a staggering number.  The institution mentioned above would see an increase in tuition revenue of $0.5M with a 7% increase in retention.  An affordable solution would provide very strong return on investment.

An assumption that students who leave cannot handle the academic rigor, so we should allow for this natural attrition

A strong admissions department should be filtering out students who will struggle.  Of course, the expectation is rarely 100% retention and certainly a small population of students may struggle academically.  Most students admitted to graduate programs can meet and exceed the academic requirements, but life gets in the way.  When priorities shift and life intervenes, the performance drops.  It’s easy to point the finger at performance, but is that the true reason a student leaves their graduate program?  Identify these dips in performance quickly and then engage to uncover the real issue.

An assumption that some students leave because they’ve chosen a different career direction, which usually involves gainful employment

Students who drop of out graduate school are likely pulled away by life situations.  Families, health, career, finances, debt and self-confidence are key factors.  The latter factor there, self-confidence, is important to pay attention to.  In Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, she talks about the high number of people admitted to prestigious academic programs who experience imposter syndrome, which is basically a consistent feeling that they must have fooled the admissions folks to gain acceptance into their program.  She experienced the same thing herself as a grad student at Princeton, now she’s a best-selling author doing ground-breaking research in how people judge and influence each other.  My point here is that these are obstacles that graduate students can overcome.

There is an answer…  a practical and affordable retention solution can support the right students to persist to graduation.  A system that bolsters the work our professional and faculty advisors are doing to support students.  Being able to find and engage students who are at-risk is advantageous, but so is having a system that automatically recognizes key accomplishments and benchmarks.  The return on investing in a solution can add significant tuition revenue.  More important, it’s difficult to put a monetary value on the impact to the university and future of the student, as well.

I have to share that this topic is close to my heart.  I almost left graduate school myself.  I realized early on in my clinical psychology program that I was not interested in being a therapist.  Furthermore, I was presented with a fantastic job offer that would have been hard to refuse.  A faculty mentor showed me the value of finishing my program.  Looking back, I made exactly the right decision.

Aviso Retention provides analytics, software and expertise to increase student retention and engagement.  Click here to learn more.

Transactional vs. Transformational

Transactional vs. Transformational

For many, February encompasses various important and historically significant days; for my family, February holds an additional, especially incomparable day. This particular day holds the weight of endless hours away from home, on the phone, late nights and countless conversations. It is known around the college coaching world as Signing Day. Every year on this day, future college athletes declare where they intend to spend the next few years of their life, and to which football staff they will entrust a significant amount of their college experience. This decision is often also linked to the potential opportunity to move beyond college football and play on Sundays.

When thinking about the interactions leading up to this day, it is critical that the relationship between an athlete and college coach has moved beyond “Hi, what is your name, and what would you like to major in?”.  The coach has to become an advisor, a confidant, an expert, and a friend. Often, this trusting relationship will also need to extend to other stakeholders in the athlete’s life. The buy-in from the entire support system is crucial.

These conversations must transition from a simple transaction to the idea that being with this team, this coach, and this institution will transform this athlete’s ability to be successful in whatever he/she decides to pursue after college. The same can be said for every student heading into their collegiate experience. As institutional professionals, are we simply performing transactions with our students? Are we doing everything we can to ensure that every interaction aids in transforming their future?

Our days can become overwhelming. When walking into our offices, we are immediately hit with reports, agendas, state mandates, and that same one or two students, who always seem to be waiting for us in the lobby.  Every moment can be multi-faceted. Knocks on the door are endless, and while our office’s uphold an “open-door” policy, the moments when you can close it, to take a breather (even if a breather means ensuring that reports are submitted on time) feels like a little bit of advising heaven.

We love our students and what we do. In fact, we are passionate about helping them, progress. It’s very likely that we, ourselves, had an impactful college professor or staff member who really made a difference in our college experience. That very experience is what made us want to work in higher education. When thinking about our own experiences, we can still name those staff or faculty members that made a difference. To dive deeper, when thinking about the interactions we had with these impactful people, often times, they transformed our thinking or experience. Too often, college students become accustomed to transactional communication in higher education. “Go to the registrar’s office and give them Document A. They will then send you to the business office to turn in Document A and give you Document B. Once you have Document B, go online and type in your user name and password so that you can sign-up for classes. If you have forgotten your user name or password, please call IT, and they may pick up.” During this process, do we ever ask our students anything other than their last name and student ID number?

While some of these transactions are imperative to their progress, the transformational conversations will be what leads to their success. Although those one, two (or fifteen) students who always seem to be waiting for us, can be a bit daunting, these same students are being transformed because of what their advisor, success coach, or faculty member is doing for their college experience. The same student who continued to wait outside your office to report unrelated information or change their schedule, just ONE more time, will also be transformed because of the support provided.

‘Good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience.’

Light, R.J. (2001) Making the most of college. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

 

Sarah Hood is the Client Success Manager for Aviso Coaching LLC, in Columbus, Ohio. She has played and instrumental role in the successful retention efforts for multiple collegiate campuses.  This experience has guided her to provide a platform for institutions and departments to voice their retention goals, establishing the first link to the Aviso team’s ability to assist in reaching and sustaining those endeavors.

Coaching Adult, Online Students

Coaching Adult, Online Students

Online programs are here to stay. These programs have revolutionized how students can access a college education and the population of people who are doing so is booming. That is an unequivocally good thing!

Older students who have taken time away from education to work or start families are coming back in droves to begin, finish, or extend their educations. During a conversation with one of my colleagues who works with many of these students, I asked him what the biggest takeaways have been in his work so far. The best thing, he said, is that older students are (no shockers here) more mature. Having decided to go back to school voluntarily, they generally have both the clarity of purpose and experienced work ethic that students fresh out of high school so often lack. Also, while much of what I do early on with my younger, more traditional students involves detective work- sometimes I can’t tell if a student just isn’t telling me what the problem is or if he or she genuinely doesn’t know that herself- older students arrive with a pretty good idea where their deficiencies lie. “I haven’t taken a math class in over 20 years!” Or “I haven’t written anything longer than an email since I started working!” Likewise, they are more comfortable admitting when they need help. Younger students, especially those who have ended up in academic hot water, are often reluctant to speak out when they don’t know something or need help for fear of looking stupid. They’re terrified of anyone finding out that they might not know something, so they keep mum even if it means falling further and further in the hole. Older students are much more comfortable asking for help, and they generally are very willing to use the resources available to them.

At my university, our online programs are chock full of great resources for students, from individual online tutoring to streaming video review sessions. Since many of these resources, much like online education itself, revolve around technology, it’s important to make sure older students know not only where to access help but how to actually use the technology. Not everyone over 40, of course, is a hunt-and-peck typer unable to do so much as cut and paste, but according to my colleague…”since there is such a wide spectrum of technological experience and ability with older students, it’s best not to assume that anyone knows anything.” He spends much of his time with online students helping them gain a facility with the technology that will enable them to make the most of the available resources. Sending an attachment, uploading a paper, joining a discussion thread, engaging with a tutor via video chat- these are all skills crucial to success as an online student that may be as foreign to an older student as pumping out some copies on the ditto machine would be to…well, pretty much anyone.

All in all, helping older students navigate the world of online education is, much as it is with traditional students, all about connecting students with the resources they need to succeed. It’s about listening to their stories and helping them discern first what they need and then how to get it. Online education has opened doors for so many new types of students, and it’s our job to make sure they have all they need to walk through those doors and across a graduation stage.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.