A changing world: student retention in focus

Student retention is attracting attention all over the globe due to the rising costs of tuition, commercialisation of the offering and increased competition in higher education. Satisfaction and student retention is key to improving rankings, and there is of course the economic benefit of retaining the student. All it takes is to simply put in a piece of learning analytics, and away you go, right?

Well, not quite.

We don’t believe that quick wins are possible in this space. We believe simply adding a piece of tech treats the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. Technology alone cannot deal with the underlying issues - you need institutional change. This is definitely not an easy task in any industry, but particularly higher education - as complex, siloed structures and legacy technology do little for innovation.

We don’t believe that quick wins are possible in this space. We believe simply adding a piece of tech treats the symptoms of the problem, not the cause.

How do we know this? Because we’ve deployed student retention solutions across Australia, and that was our experience. It was successful project work - but there were much larger scale changes needed in order to deal with the underlying causes. It’s “easy” to deploy a solution which generates interventions for students when they are flagged at risk. It’s not easy to answer why the same risk factors are used to identify students repeatedly. There is no “one size fits all” approach that works. No magic recipe. No special piece of technology which just deals with retention.

When thinking about underlying causes, it's crucial to remember that every student is different and has vividly differing needs. A mid-30s student that is studying part-time whilst working is very different to an 18 year old full-timer living on campus. What these two students need from their institution is very different in terms of support and engagement.

A personalised approach to student engagement is a concept that has been understood and valued by universities for many years now. In order to attract and recruit students in this increasingly competitive landscape, universities need to deliver personalised acquisition experiences that engage prospective students. However, the value of this approach extends beyond acquisition to the entire student lifecycle - a student does not stop craving personalised experiences once they successfully enroll. Universities need to foster a culture that that allows them  to be flexible and adaptable when supporting and engaging with their students.

In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority has begun enforcing legislation to ensure that students are protected under consumer law - essentially ensuring students “get what they paid for”.  A handful of universities have received hefty fines, and some students are even bringing lawsuits against their alma mater.

If there was ever a time when the phrase “students are consumers” could be banded around, it is now.

It’s not hard to see why either. The students who start next year were born in the 21st century and therefore have never known an offline world. Their experience with a traditionally ‘boring’ space (such as banking, for example) is filled with brands like Monzo and Transferwise, who are completely upsetting the traditional status-quo of customer experiences  and boosting expectations. These companies have digital woven into their fabric - it is fundamental that their business strategy and digital strategy are one and the same, and it’s no surprise that the result is an exceptional customer experience. Is it any wonder what students have come to expect from their university?

More than just consumers

The intriguing part here however, is not that students are consumers. The really interesting part begins when one starts to consider how much deeper the relationship between student and university goes - much deeper compared to that between consumer and brand. For many students their university is their entire world, and the words that they would use to describe it are powerful. Words like pride. Friendship. Empowerment. Belonging. Happiness.

The relationship here is far deeper than with just a “brand”. People don’t leave home for brands. In the UK, 80% of students have left home for a university. It begs the question: what else do people leave home for?

Jobs.

The intriguing part here however, is not that students are consumers. The really interesting part begins when one starts to consider how much deeper the relationship between student and university goes - much deeper compared to that between consumer and brand.

When examining the relationship between a student and their institution you will quickly find many similarities in the relationship between an employee and their company. The reasons they choose it, stay with it, and leave it are, essentially, the same.

If you consider the dual nature of students as both consumers and employees, it can help identify: why people leave, how you can treat them differently, and how you build stronger relationships.

It also changes the way we perceive each role. Academics don’t need to be seen as “just” academics. They are managers, who play an integral role in the development of those within the same body - and who need to be supported as such.

Let’s look at what we can learn from this. Think about the reasons why someone leaves a job.

Gallup research has identified the top reasons an individual leaves an organisation:

  1. The immediate manager
  2. Poor fit to the job
  3. Coworkers not committed to quality
  4. Pay and benefits
  5. Connection to the organisation or to senior management

When considering a higher education context, these reasons are immediately transposable:

  1. Their immediate support network
  2. Poor fit for the course
  3. The institution is not committed to quality
  4. Extra-curricular benefits and qualification value
  5. Connection to the institution

There are clear learnings from this which should drive greater focus upon how institutions look at students. Some students are very much consumers (e.g. some mature students who are very clearing focussed on the ROI). But for many students, they are much more than just consumers - they are employees also, and their relationship goes much deeper. For a university to succeed, it must be prepared to engage students in this dual mode - as both consumers and employees.

So what should you do? Two things:

  1. Start Googling phrases like: employee engagement, employee value proposition, employee retention. There is a lot of corporate-funded research into this space which is immediately transferrable to the student experience..
  2. Follow this blog for the second part, where we look at how to apply Forrester’s “win serve keep” framework as a strategy to address this challenge.

This is the first of a two-part series, adapting a workshop led by Squiz at Universities UK’s event, “Improving student retention in the changing higher education landscape”, held in London on the 7th June, 2017. Now we’ve introduced the challenging new theory in the space of retention in part 1, check out part 2 where we focus upon strategies to address retention and the overarching student experience.

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