It’s no secret that the issues of post-secondary student retention and persistence are areas of national concern. If you have been working in the field of education for any length of time, your institution has probably experimented with or implemented a variety of solutions designed to improve the retention rate for first-to-second year students, which currently hovers at approximately 72%, according to the most recent data from ACT®.

If your institution believes – as many do – that retention is the job of everyone on campus, you may have explored or implemented an early warning and tracking system that collects and monitors academic and non-academic data from your student information system (SIS), learning management system (LMS), and other university data sources. Such systems typically aggregate the data on both the student and cohort levels, incorporate predictive modeling, and present the data in the form of a retention dashboard. When a student is flagged as being “at-risk”, the school is able to reach out to the student to offer programs and assistance that have proven to be effective in similar situations.These systems are available from many SIS vendors, as add-on modules to the core SIS system, along with consulting services to customize the dashboards and reports. They can play an important role in improving both retention and persistence rates, but they primarily depend upon data sources that are established and built after the student joins the institution as a freshman or transfer student.

Another student retention solution – one that complements early warning and alert systems like the ones described above – takes more of a preventative approach. Within the first or second week of the first semester, or before students even start classes, they are asked to fill out an online questionnaire that is designed to uncover social, cognitive, and emotional factors that have been found to play a role in college success, including the academic-related skills that were identified in a 2004 ACT Policy Report. When students’ responses to these instruments are considered alone or in combination with their academic data and standardized assessment scores, the institution is better able to identify “at risk” students and to implement a focused set of first-semester programs and intervention strategies – so that students can achieve a real sense of accomplishment and academic self-confidence as quickly as possible. Schools that take this approach often follow up later in the year with a second, mid-year survey of the same group of students to determine whether the programs, alerts, and intervention strategies that they have developed are working as well as they had anticipated.

Satisfaction also plays an important role in student retention, as discussed in a research report by Dr. Laurie Schreiner of Azusa Pacific University and Noel-Levitz. Students are acutely aware of security issues and the cost of education, so they are likely to transfer to another school or take time off if they feel as though security measures are inadequate, they are not getting the best value for their tuition dollars, or that a school’s advisors are not readily accessible. According to Dr. Schreiner’s research, freshmen who do not find the student experience to be enjoyable are “60 percent less likely to return as sophomores; those with significant gaps in sense of belonging are 39 percent less likely, and those who have difficulty contacting their advisors are 17 percent less likely” to return1. Satisfaction surveys, focus groups, and student assessments, like the mid-year questionnaires discussed earlier, help institutions identify and address satisfaction issues early-on, reducing the rate of attrition and the need for exit interviews.

What strategies have you employed at your institution to help improve student retention rates? We would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences using the comments section below.

Cengage Learning offers three different student assessment survey tools that enable an institution to identify at-risk students, plan appropriate programs for its incoming freshman and transfers, design custom intervention strategies for individual students, and help students make decisions that will improve their chances of completing degree programs. The College Success Factors Index (CSFI), the Noel-Levitz® College Student Inventory (CSI), and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) can all be packaged with Cengage Learning College Success texts; CSFI can also be purchased as a standalone option. Please consult your Cengage Learning representative for more information.



1Schreiner, Laurie A. “Linking Student Satisfaction and Retention.” Noel-Levitz, 2009,