Could you help reverse enrollment losses with targeted tweaks to campus experiences? Industry experts believe so.
Student retention is a major area of focus for higher ed leaders, and it’s natural to think solutions must be big, complex and difficult to implement. In reality, student satisfaction and engagement — key ingredients for retention — are built on numerous micro-experiences. While searching for big answers, many institutions become blind to small factors that have a big impact on students’ decision to stay or go.
The good news: Unlike big retention killers like financial hardship or health crises, these small friction points are often within your control and far easier to counter.
Clunky payment experiences
We often think of financial burden hurting retention, but you might be surprised to learn that cumbersome billing processes — not just affordability — could be turning off students to your institution. That premise is the target of a current study by Fitchburg State University.
Good or bad, everything from accessibility to payment instructions, due dates, payment methods, penalties, login hiccups and more work together to shape an experience that either drives satisfaction or resentment toward your organization. Moreover, many institutions have different payment processes depending on various criteria: graduate vs. undergraduate students, summer/winter vs. fall/spring terms, self-pay or financial aid and more.
Fitchburg State began testing hypotheses around payment experiences with an internal student survey, which found the university’s 24-hour payment deadline for a segment of the student population was one factor negatively impacting course registration for a number of students. Nearly four in 10 of the students who responded to the survey said they’d been dropped from a course for not making a payment within 24 hours of registration, and just over 5% of those students never re-registered.
In a recent webinar, Becky Copper-Glenz, Dean of Graduate, Online and Continuing Education at Fitchburg, shared that the survey has since expanded to an industry-wide study and other institutions are encouraged to participate. “It’s not about rating the performance of the billing department, but a review of institutional structure and process,” she explains. “If we look 10, 20 years out, what type of students will we be serving and how do we update billing practices accordingly?”
Holding transcripts for late payment
Transcript holds for overdue balances are falling out of favor across the industry. Aside from damaging student perceptions, transcript holds could also be illegal. Federal and state legislators are actively scrutinizing the practice, and many states have passed laws restricting or prohibiting transcript holds.
From a retention perspective, we know a student who’s frustrated or bitter toward an institution is far less likely to re-enroll or recommend that school to others. How, then, can institutions prevent or resolve late balances?
Heather Richmond, vice president of marketing at TouchNet — an integrated commerce and ID management platform for colleges and universities — recommends analyzing the data you have today for trends in overdue balances.
“Understanding patterns will illuminate opportunities for preventing or reducing late payments,” says Richmond. “What are the most common causes for overdue balances? In contrast, what other causes are rare but lead to significant issues for students and staff? Look at factors like timing, due dates, registration procedures and payment plan options that influence a student’s ability to make payments on time and in full,” she adds. Once you understand what factors deter payments, you can discern how to best influence behaviors.
Proactive education combined with clear and frequent communication also goes a long way to driving payments, especially with students who’ve never handled responsibilities like budgeting and payment schedules before.
Students who have a great onboarding experience are 35x more likely to have a great overall university experience, reports Salesforce. Among those satisfied students, 82% also report having mobile access to services, and 60% say their institution personalizes engagements to their interests and needs. Combining those elements — easy access, easy answers and personalized experiences — can strengthen retention from the very beginning.
In addition to facilitating access, it’s also important to make students aware of the resources available to them. In a survey by Tyton Partners, 60% of students said they didn’t know the full scope of services offered by their college or university — particularly health and mentoring services. The survey also found a direct correlation between awareness of support services and feelings of belonging.
“Enrollment and welcome events are great opportunities to convey that information,” notes Richmond: “Often there’s a ‘rah-rah’ vibe and you have campus life staff at these events, but no one to answer the types of questions that students and their families often worry about like billing, course scheduling or disability accommodations. It’s a missed opportunity.”
Red-flag behaviors go unnoticed
Before they drop out, students leave many clues indicating they’re disengaged and at risk of imminent withdrawal. Missed classes, unused dining balances, health services usage and other trackable behaviors present opportunities for higher ed leaders to intervene before those students are lost.
Take the University of California, Irvine, for instance. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, leaders at the university found that 40 to 50 percent of its students will change their major at least once — something only students in good academic standing can do. Among students who didn’t graduate, an overwhelming trend was that none of them changed their major.
How did UC leaders spot that trend? Student IDs made it possible. Because ID cards touch every aspect of campus life, ID management technology is a versatile data tracker and integrator, revealing trends impacting retention. “Having access to that data is critical for spotting hidden risks and opportunities, as in UC Irvine’s example,” says Richmond. “It also helps higher ed leaders vet their hunches as to why students are leaving the school, so they don’t sink effort and dollars into areas that won’t yield desired results,” she adds.
Start small for big wins
Often it’s not feasible for institutions to implement expensive or complex changes in a short time frame. It’s also not necessary to figure everything out from the get-go.
A better way: Start with small targets. “Let data reveal areas worthy of your attention, get some wins and build on those wins, applying lessons and new capabilities to other areas,” Richmond advises. Little by little, small enhancements to student experiences can earn big rewards, keeping students returning for more.
What retention opportunities are hiding in plain sight? Connect with TouchNet to learn how to integrate and automate data across all student experiences.
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