Retention Strategies: Relationship Maintenance 101

© This article was reprinted from Recruitment and Retention Newsletter with permission by The National Center for Student Life, A Division of Magna Publications, Inc.


Higher education has an increasing focus on student retention, and rightfully so. Once your institution has invested the time, money, and resources it takes to enroll a student, you want to build a long-term connection, keeping him or her engaged and moving forward to graduation. For students and institutions alike, this doesn’t just make good academic sense; it makes good financial sense too.

At the core of any successful retention strategy is the institution-student bond. How well does the institution know the student and does the student feel a meaningful rapport with the institution? Is the institution, including the people who are closest to influencing the student on a day-to-day basis, doing everything possible to support and motivate the student? Do those day-to-day interactions leave the student feeling able and willing to complete a degree and have a positive experience along the way?

The institution-student relationship begins prior to the point of enrollment, as the prospective student builds a relationship with his or her enrollment advisor and navigates the decision-making process, evaluating whether the school and program are going to be the right fit. But initiating the relationship, and ensuring the student has a positive onboarding experience isn’t enough to drive retention. Maintaining the relationship over the long haul is the real key.

As in any relationship, a successful institution-student bond takes work. Trust and compatibility are essential, as are parallel goals. Successful relationships take a commitment to getting to know each other, understanding challenges and behaviors, and supporting each other to the fullest extent. While relationships in general are a two-way street, in the case of higher education students typically expect the institution to make more of an effort to get to know the student, adding value to the experience, and maintaining a positive relationship from the first interaction until the day of graduation.

Creating a meaningful and lasting relationship with each and every student is challenging, yet imperative. Let’s explore some general rules for institution-student Relationship Maintenance 101.

Get off on the right foot

  • Create a good first impression. Make sure the student knows how and where to find essential information that will enhance the experience, and ensure that access is easy. Information and resources should be relevant and succinct, creating a desire for the student to further engage.
  • Take an interest. Get to know students on a deeper level from the get-go, asking about and documenting their academic history, learning styles, communication preferences, outside commitments, and goals.
  • Determine fit. Assess the kinds of programs students demand and the learning modalities that suit their learning styles.
  • Honor your commitments. Create a feeling of trust from the beginning; follow up when you say you are going to follow up, and have the student’s best interest in mind when matching him or her with a program.
  • Set expectations. Learn up front what the student wants to get out of the relationship, and make sure the student knows what will be required of him or her.

Be cognizant of competing factors

  • Apply data. Leverage information collected during the enrollment stage to better understand any risk factors that might deter a student from staying engaged and retained.
  • Monitor progress. Track milestones that are and are not met.
  • Take feedback into account. Analyze student survey responses, and act on the top two to three most actionable and lowest-rated components of the student experience.

Always have their backs

  • Provide a consistent point of contact. Be it a coach, advisor, or faculty member, make sure at least one person is responsible for reaching out and creating a positive experience, especially within the first year or term (can be evaluated based on the tipping point for dropouts).
  • Be proactive. Check in on students regularly, and assess whether there are issues you can help resolve.
  • Implement action plans. Based on student data, create a plan to automatically reach out at certain points throughout their enrollment or when red flags arise in order to help students stay on track.
  • Be responsive. Make sure offices (advising, student services, career, tutoring, etc.) that support enrolled students are readily available during times when students need them.

Rely on open communication

  • Establish a pattern of two-way communications. While more often than not it is the institution that initiates contact, make sure students feel confident and comfortable reaching out to you in times of need.
  • Create an open-door policy. Encourage students to engage in dialogue and take the initiative to find and update you on their progress.
  • Build a sense of community. Connect students who have similar interests and goals.

Be supportive beyond expectations

  • Engage in success coaching. Help a student set realistic academic goals from week to week, term to term, and year to year.
  • Make technology intuitive. Beyond the learning experience, provide easy-to-use options for students to pay bills, find grades, find contact information for staff/faculty, and more.
  • Drive interactivity. Make sure the courses and non-course exchanges are social and motivating.
  • Communicate about what’s to come. Ensure students are ready and prepared for the next phase of school, life, and career.

Consider the National Student Clearinghouse’s data that tells us that a third of students who left college before graduating dropped out after only one term. More than half of those who dropped out attended multiple terms, but did so after less than two years. Were these students supported in the right way and were the relationships they built with their institutions maintained properly? Likely not.

Ensuring a student feels connected with your institution is the foundation for creating a relationship that motivates and inspires that student to enroll from term to term and strive for a degree. By getting to know your students well, applying that information throughout their courses of study, monitoring that information for changes, and continually communicating, you will retain more students—not only helping them graduate but also optimizing the value of graduation along the way.

As the vice president of retention services at Helix Education, Sarah Horn brings unique insight into student retention from more than a decade of experience in higher education, nearly all in operations. She has designed, scaled, and managed a success coaching program for an online associate’s degree, and has a tremendous amount of experience aligning and implementing relevant, practical retention strategies that drive results. Sarah is a graduate of The University of Rochester and earned her master’s degree at John F. Kennedy University. 

© This article was reprinted from Recruitment and Retention Newsletter with permission by The National Center for Student Life, A Division of Magna Publications, Inc.
Posted on August 25, 2015

Kara Snyder

As the Director of Corporate Marketing, Kara brings nearly a decade of education marketing insights and experience to Helix Education. Before joining Helix, she worked in enrollment and affiliate marketing, undergraduate and graduate admissions, and student affairs. Kara earned her bachelor’s degree from Temple University.