7 best practices to boost student retention in higher education

Isabel Sagenmüller Student retention
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7 best practices to boost student retention in higher education

Students can be the best promoters of their universities in the society. But this can only be achieved by building a bond of trust between both parties. Student retention strategies aim precisely at building this kind of relationship, where students feel safe and well supported.

Student-centered active learning, all-institution involvement and “Belonging – Engagement – Retention” model are some of the most important strategies that higher education institutions around the world are implementing to improve their student retention rates.

But this is a very complex process, which has to deal with several variables that have to be followed and measured from freshmen year to graduation day and even further. Student retention strategies are long-term processes, so their results can be viewed only after several years of implementation.

How do we know if this process is going in the right direction? Here is where best practices appear as the right answer because they consist of easy-to-implement actions that deliver concrete and measurable results that can help to visualize how the strategy is doing.

The following best practices stand out in the higher education environment because they are easy to implement and are fully student-oriented.

1. Close advisory from the first day

“Evidence has consistently indicated the importance of new students connecting with their advisor(s) very early in their first semester of college,” a Mansfield University (Pennsylvania, US) paper stands. This institution recommends that all advisors should meet individually or in small groups with first-year students within two weeks of the start of the semester.

2. Mandatory class attendance for all first year

Mansfield also says that freshmen need structure from the beginning. “Once new students get even a week behind, they become at risk for giving up and dropping out.” They recommend “to implement a mandatory class attendance policy for all first year and other lower level courses. Report students who miss more than two classes in succession so that a retention team member can contact them for follow-up.”

3. First-year experience

One of the most common reasons of student quitting is the lack of integration. For several factors, they never get used to an academic environment, they feel they don’t match the community. That’s why first-year experience programs are commonly implemented by universities who care about student retention.

According to the University of Texas, these programs “create a small community within the larger campus for first-year students, helping them build relationships with other students as well as faculty and staff (…). Students who participate, demonstrate more positive relationships with faculty, greater knowledge and use of campus resources, more involvement in campus activities, and better time-management skills than their non-participating peers.”

4. Learning Community

In relation to the previous best practice, “learning communities build a sense of academic and social community and increase engagement among students and faculty, all of which lead to a variety of positive outcomes. These may include improved academic achievement, credits earned and self-reported learning,” University of Texas explains.

“The literature suggests that participating students also demonstrate greater progress in academic subjects, indicate increased satisfaction with the college and report greater use of student support services,” this institution stands.

5. Academic and social support

Hanover Research consultants underline the importance of taking care of students when they come from low-income social environments. “Universities need to pay attention to the practical and emotional barriers to college attendance low-income students face. This is borne out by Georgia State’s program, which does not simply dispense money to at-risk students and send them on their way. Its 'Keep HOPE Alive' grants are accompanied by mandatory workshops in time management, financial literacy and academic skills to help students regain their footing.” 

6. Examination Timing

Many first-year students got scared when facing a completely new examination schedule, so different from high school. Mansfield University says that the maxim 'test early, test often' is particularly important for first-year courses. These courses should follow the practices of assessing early and often and avoiding a small number of major examinations as the primary method of assessment. Low-risk or practice exams should be used to help students adapt to the expectations of college-level learning.” 

7. First-year excellence

Last but not least, looking for excellence from the first day is an essential best practice in higher education to improve student retention rates. In the paper entitled “Retention: A select critical inventory of best practices”, Dr. Jeff Clark, from Sacramento State University, underlines some following findings and recommendations:

- Institutions that achieve first-year excellence place a high priority on the first year.

- Excellence flourishes in a culture that encourages idea generation, pilot projects and experimentation.

- Of the campuses that achieve first-year excellence, a common characteristic is clarity of institutional identity and mission and concomitant respect for students.

- Excellence in the first year relies on the direct involvement of an institution’s faculty.

- First-year excellence necessitates both creative acquisition and judicious use of financial resources.

“These findings and recommendations – Dr. Clark explains  were part of the conclusion of a study of thirteen colleges and universities in the United States that, in the words of the authors, “have achieved excellence in the way they structure and implement the first year.”


Does your university implement some of these best practices in student retention? Are you using other best practices? Are they working well? We invite to share a comment.