The Financial Crisis in Higher Education and How Student Retention Can Help

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Chief business officers at colleges and universities recognize the seriousness of the current financial crisis in higher education, according to the 2017 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Business Officers. Seventy-one percent agree with media reports of a higher education financial crisis, up from 63 percent in 2016. Only 56 percent agree or strongly agree that their institutions will be financially stable over the next five years. That number drops to 48 percent when looking 10 years down the line.

Fewer respondents than in years past will attempt to grow revenue by increasing enrollment or reducing the tuition discount rate. Many schools are looking into cost-cutting measures, and a handful have discussed mergers to consolidate resources. However, 86 percent of chief business officers agree that investing in student retention would contribute to greater financial stability.

In fact, a recent report from RPK Group found that schools could boost annual profits by $1 million by increasing student retention rates. In addition to the implementation of alternate delivery and instructional models, institutions are upgrading their technology and strategies to help students better navigate college pathways.

Improving student retention and success requires an integrated, unified approach across the institution. Student retention must be a shared goal among administrators, faculty and students. Only by engaging all three groups can schools identify the factors that affect student retention, and then develop and execute an effective strategy. This strategy needs to be managed by the appropriate personnel and include training to ensure the strategy is carried out properly.

The first step is to define what success looks like from both the student’s perspective and the institution’s perspective. What are the goals? What metrics will be used? How will data be reported? Of course, the ultimate goal for each student is degree completion, but many smaller goals need to be met throughout the student’s journey to get to graduation day.

Understanding success will enable you to quickly identify at-risk students who are showing warning signs of failure, both academically and socially. For example, are they frequently missing class? Are their writing or math skills weak? Are they struggling financially? Instead of waiting for midterm exams to evaluate students based purely on academic performance, schools should have a plan for proactively helping students get on track. The earlier you intervene, the better the odds of improving the entire student experience.

From a technology standpoint, data and resources must be integrated in a way that enables seamless collaboration between students, faculty and support staff. Data needs to be not only collected, but organized, analyzed, updated and reported. It must be for authorized parties to access and search. This will help you spot trends and determine if your student retention and success strategy is actually working.

A centralized student information system can play an important role in helping students succeed. Such a system makes it possible to communicate directly with at-risk students and develop a customized plan to assist them. Scheduled alerts via phone, email, text and other channels can be used to keep students on the right path and provide them with the resources they need to keep moving forward. A centralized student information system also creates operational efficiency by automating simple tasks and frees staff to personally interact with students.

The financial crisis in higher education is very real. Colleges and universities must create an integrated, technology-driven student retention and success strategy to achieve better outcomes and boost their bottom lines.