Leadership In Higher Education

Online Student Services That Enable Retention

By working in higher education you have seen a reduction in retention rates over the last few years. In 2018, the student dropout rate had soared to 40%. Due to the pandemic and students’ financial pressures, this statistic has continued to climb. Some studies show that only 14.7% of students enrolled in a bachelor's program will graduate within six years. 

Students and institutions alike are worried about this trend. The average college dropout owes $13,000 in student debt, and 53% of those students are not paying down that debt. On the institution side, a retained student can maintain thousands- if not tens of thousands of dollars of revenue over the expected time of program completion. When a school loses a student, it sends a shockwave of lost revenues through multiple semesters and even years. Therefore, for the sake of the student and the institution, dropout mitigation should be an absolute priority.

This article will show you tactics and online tools you can use to combat student attrition. Apart from this, we have several other articles designed to help you, from teaching students essential skills to broadly developing institutional strategies.

Aside from the traditional pressures of school, students today also face challenges in  navigating virtual resources. Most students are extremely familiar with digital spaces, but these spaces, especially within the higher education context, can be less effective than traditional in-person resources if used incorrectly. Students are more likely to drop out if they “[do] not feel they have been placed in the most appropriate course” or believe they are not receiving adequate help in attending university. These are concerns that can be addressed by digital resources. However, we all know that these online systems can often leave much to be desired.

Student Retention Strategies

Today, administrators have many digital tools at their disposal. While technology is important for student retention, it is not sufficient by itself to keep students in school. It has been shown that the relationships created within schools dramatically increase student retention. Relationships between staff, faculty, and students are integral to retention. Technology can facilitate this, but it is a means to an end, not the end itself. Therefore, when assessing digital tools, ask whether or not it adds to the student experience or not.

Studies show that students who feel connected to their school are more likely to graduate. Being intentional about building a culture of support can yield dividends in terms of student outcomes. To see this idea in action, read our latest case study on the Morehouse School of Medicine. When reading the strategies listed below, question how they can (or cannot) fit into building a culture of success. Higher education exists to transform ordinary students into extraordinary people – strive for excellence in the way you support your students.


An automated chatbot on your school’s website can be an excellent tool to begin conversations with students. It can answer your students’ simple questions effectively without requiring the time of an administrator.

Chatbots can be fantastic tools to streamline communications with students and efficiently guide them through the services your institution offers. For example, a chatbot could appear on a page dedicated to student wellness. This chatbot could then show opportunities for counselling, writing assistance, or degree advising. By showing the student the multiple options available to them, the student can easily navigate their options and be more likely to take advantage of them.

However, as already discussed, implementing technology without due cause is not the best use of your resources. Too many automated messages (including texts and emails) can leave the student feeling more isolated because they have no contact with an actual person.

Chatbots operate well in harmony with administrators who can engage the student with more nuance. By adding a human touch into your automated systems, you integrate the efficiency of the technology with the human connectivity that comes from a genuine interaction between people. If you decide to use a chatbot, consider adding regular reviews into your workflows to ensure the service is meeting the needs of students.

On-Demand Video Libraries

Many of your first-year students are engaging with higher education for the first time. The academic system is not necessarily intuitive for the new student. While a conversation with the student’s academic advisor will certainly help them navigate these systems, accessibility to the administrator may not be quick enough to answer simple questions. Having “How To” pages can help students see that their success matters to the institution.

On-demand video libraries could be made available to students on topics touching on all aspects of the academic experience. Ensuring that these digital libraries are organized and easy to navigate will help students get the answers they need quickly.

Drop-In Centers (In Person And Online)

As we have stressed before, the importance of genuine human connection cannot be overstated. Therefore, maximizing the possibilities for connection is important. By scheduling your administrators to have “open hours” or “drop-in hours” makes it easier for students to engage with their administrators in a more casual way. These interactions can be of extreme value and bring about mutual understanding that will allow the administrator to better serve the student.

You likely already have this system in place. There are a few considerations that can help you optimize your drop-ins. Firstly, recognize the necessity of tracking your administrator’s time. By knowing how your administrators are using or not using their open hours, you can better schedule their time.

With in-person drop-in centers, it is important for your administrators and staff to log their time so you know that it is well spent. With online drop-in centers, this can be done automatically by the software you are using. Resource tracking is integral to determining budgeting and staffing requirements.

Another benefit of online drop-in centres is the ease of access for students. Today, most institutions have implemented or fully converted to online schooling. And though this has many pros and cons, one of the benefits of online drop-in centers is that it lowers the barrier to entry for students. Students can make appointments without having to worry about being at an office on time, and that can make a significant difference in the number of appointments booked.


While one-on-one meetings have important personal and social benefits, it is not always the best use of time. Allowing administrators, staff, and faculty to meet in group settings online or in person is an excellent way to transmit knowledge to a group in much the same way as a classroom lecture can. The added benefits of a workshop are its interactivity and its ability to focus on subjects not directly regaled to a student’s academic courses.

A workshop can not only add to the academic value a student receives but also create a relationship between them and their instructor that may not be possible within a lecture setting. This relationship can have a large impact on student success and retention. An instructor tuned in to their students’ needs is more likely to support them when they are struggling.

Early Alerts

Most institutions are already using early alert systems that flag struggling students. These systems allow administrators to proactively intervene when a student’s performance does not meet expectations. By using an early alert system, schools can reduce dropout rates and increase student retention. 

Many early alert systems today use AI tracking to flag struggling students. This is problematic because an AI is only as good as the programming that created it. Many current AI early alert systems deliver false flags based on a quantitative rather than a qualitative whole. Some schools have seen their AI early alert systems singling out minority and poorer students who are performing well in their studies. This not only perpetuates student stereotypes but also wastes school time and resources.

An early alert system that is based upon human intervention is far more effective. Alerting administrators to patterns that would indicate poor performance allows them to make discerning decisions as to resources that should be used to help the student succeed. This reduces time and cost. Take a look at the actual operation of your early alert system, and conduct a review as to whether or not it is delivering relevant alerts.

Key Takeaways

Supporting your students begins with creating excellent systems of support. Pursue strategies that foster student trust in your institution. Create connections between the student and the resources available to them.

You can and should utilize technology to support your students. However, avoid the trap of adopting technology for its own sake. Only add technologies that support your core mission of student success. This can be easier said than done. When comparing yourself to similar institutions, you may see tools being used that look enticing but do not actually fit with your core strategy. Choose technologies that align with your plan of student support and institutional growth.

Retaining students is of enormous importance. The decisions your institution makes will create effects that will be felt over multiple academic years. It is imperative to create strong principles that guide your decisions, as well as align with strategic partners that work to support your vision.

We believe that sharing knowledge makes us all stronger. If you have any questions about how to better manage your student services that enable retention, even if it isn’t related to the products we provide, we would be eager to listen and help. To contact one of our industry experts, click “Talk To Us” on the top right of your screen now. If you have any industry insights that you think could improve this article, please let us know!

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