Eight Ways to Retain Students in a Tough Economy
By ADOLFO RUDY CARDONA
It's tough out there: People are losing their jobs, their homes, and their dreams. The nation's 8.5-percent unemployment rate is the highest since 1980, and the economy shows signs it will get even worse.
Universities are not immune to the effects of the slumping economy, yet many of them are reporting their highest application and enrollment rates ever, as hard times compel people to look for new ways to increase their skills. Students' efforts to improve their job prospects, along with colleges' marketing efforts, have, indeed, translated to higher enrollments — for now. But with shrinking marketing budgets and a projected worsening of the economy, no one can tell what enrollment may look like a year from today.
The unpredictable circumstances of today's economy are an uncontrollable force about which we can do little. What we can do, however, is focus on devising creative strategies for retaining students.
To ensure that our students stay enrolled and obtain their degrees, we must first acknowledge that their lives are heavily affected by cultural and financial forces. We need to encourage them to develop skills, independence, and competence. And we must build humanistic, inspirational ways of empathizing with their fears as they struggle with uncertainty and sometimes harsh economic losses. There are many other key elements of retention efforts, including:
Validation. Today more than ever, paying for a college education is a great sacrifice, and many students need reassurance that their investment is worthwhile. The more confident they feel, the more likely they are to turn in a better academic performance. To that end, college officials should consistently articulate to students the value of what they're learning and reassure them that they're making smart decisions. Departmental e-newsletters, campus Web sites, letters, and personal interaction with students can all provide the information, guidance, and encouragement that students need to complete their degrees.
Mentoring. In my role as the M.B.A. faculty adviser at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, I often sense a need in some students for conversation beyond course and program scheduling. Many of them are fearful about the unfolding economic reality in their lives. I take the time to talk to them as fellow humans, not just students. I try to offer them constructive suggestions and ideas for the future, and encouragement about the importance of their academic efforts.
Advisers play a more important role in student retention than some might think. Beyond simply suggesting what courses students should take, advisers should act more like mentors and really get involved with their students. Extra time and listening skills are invaluable when working with students who are struggling and losing confidence. Advisers should set goals and expectations with genuine, gentle, and encouraging words.
Recognition and celebration. Another way to encourage students is to publicly recognize their achievements. Departmental newsletters, e-mail messages, and even "tweets" on Twitter are ideal for promoting students' successes, as are other campus publications and awards ceremonies. Even getting local news media, when appropriate, to publish an article about a student's notable accomplishments can pay dividends.
Giving students a voice. Another way to make students feel personally invested in their college is to invite them to become "ambassadors" of their institutions. Student ambassadors could deliver talks to new or prospective students, perhaps sharing their struggles and successes in our imperfect economic and social environment.
Practicality. Students can benefit by working on assignments relevant to today's economic reality. There are dozens of business case studies, for example, that professors can use to demonstrate ethics and risk management of the sort that have been so sorely lacking on Wall Street. In most of my marketing classes, students analyze and discuss the success or failure of today's businesses and industries, and debate what could have been prevented and how. Whenever possible, I also discuss morals and ethics with my students and challenge them to examine their own values. In doing so, I hope to help them understand that the present crisis is in part due to the absence of moral and ethical business decisions — exactly the kind of thinking that will be so critical to rebuilding our country's future.
A culture of success. Creating a positive environment is not a one-person job, nor is it a one-time activity. It is a sustained effort to help students enjoy learning; to inspire students, administrators, and faculty members; and to ask faculty and staff members for their best ideas on how they should deliver their knowledge and services. Further, colleges can sponsor lectures with local business and community leaders, play host to campus mixers that encourage faculty members to interact with students, and publicly recognize institutional accomplishments — all while acknowledging, and demonstrating a clear understanding of, the challenging times that our country faces.
Providing resources. In a time of crisis, it's essential to offer students the right resources. Colleges should optimize their Web sites by linking to mental-health support groups and information both on and off the campus, including counseling centers, health clinics, and hotlines. (A few examples include ULifeline, Freedom From Fear, and the National Graduate Student Crisis Line.)
In addition to mental-health resources, colleges can offer regular job advice, highlights of the achievements of students and alumni, and a forum for both students and faculty members to contribute their stories. Electronic student newsletters are perhaps the most cost-efficient way to do so.
And again, Twitter can be a good medium: Several university departments and graduate schools have begun tweeting regularly about job opportunities, alumni success stories, and state-of-the-field articles.
Support. Students need to feel supported today more than ever. We should try to make them feel that everyone involved in their education is genuinely concerned for their stressful circumstances. That might require administrators and faculty members to go the extra mile to work with students in every aspect of their college education. For instance, financial-aid offices could try to create more payment options, pay special attention to students' specific needs, and display gentle and sincere concern. Professors could use their class time to acknowledge the severe financial straits many Americans are in, and involve students in discussions on how their concerns matter and how their academic learning can contribute to a better future.
Positivity. Students suffering financial stress might think that dropping out of college is an easy solution to their money problems. Raising their depressed and anxious spirits ought to be the job of everyone on the campus. Secretaries, professors, and administrators should project a positive attitude when they interact and communicate with students. A smile, a "Yes, I can" response, and an empathetic "I understand" can really make a difference.
Above all, any efforts to retain students in such uncertain times must be made with a genuine desire to applaud students' efforts while nurturing a spirit of aspiration. Under severe economic conditions, today's high enrollments may not last. A student-centered approach to sustainable retention can create a more positive academic experience for students while ensuring a safer financial future for colleges.
Adolfo Rudy Cardona is faculty adviser in the M.B.A. program and an assistant professor of principles of marketing and marketing management at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota.