Greater student retention is key to a university’s sustainable success

Jarrod Brown
Jarrod Brown
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Almost one-third of higher education students enrolled today won’t complete their degree in six years. University experts say the lower student engagement and satisfaction across the peak COVID years of 2020 and 2021 is a key factor for the rise in subsequent attrition rates across the nation.

A 2023 report released by the Department of Education found that only 62 per cent of domestic university students would go on to complete their degree within six years, with 9 per cent not returning within their first year.

This data represents a dramatic fall from the reported completion rate of 67.2 per cent only a decade earlier. According to the latest QILT Student Experience Survey, 19 per cent of students who did remain at university in 2021 actually considered leaving, with half of those citing health or stress as the major cause.

Why student retention matters

Student retention is the percentage of students enrolled from the first semester to the end of their academic program at an institution. On average, 15 per cent of students will leave their course after their first year, either to transfer to another institution or drop out altogether. 

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Students who attain an undergraduate degree have been shown to have a higher earning and success potential than non-graduates, with greater opportunities for career advancement and job satisfaction. 

According to recent data by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 79 per cent of people aged between 15 and 75 with a non-schooling qualification (certificate, diploma, degree) were employed, as opposed to only 58 per cent without a qualification. 

For universities, having successful alums graduate from your school, and tracking/sharing the data publicly, can also contribute to both your recruitment and retention strategies and cast your school in a positive light.

Who’s leading the way in student retention

In the last measurement of student retention by The Good Universities Guide in 2019, Bond University dominated the rankings with a retention rate of 14 per cent. Bond University Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Tim Brailsford, said he was proud of the institution’s continued strong performance over the years. 

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“Our students are at the heart of everything we do and every decision we make, so it’s pleasing to see this absolute focus on providing a world-class, transformational student experience is constantly reflected in our Good Universities Guide ratings,” he said.

Professor Brailsford points towards the university’s emphasis on student learning, practical learning opportunities, smaller teacher-to-student ratio, industry links, and focus on outcomes being responsible for Bond’s five-star performance in The Good Universities Guide 2019.

“We are constantly investing in our people and our educational facilities,” he said.

In 2023, Bond University’s exceptionally high student satisfaction rates continue its legacy as one of Australia’s finest tertiary institutions. 90.2 per cent of Bond University students reported being satisfied with the skill development they experienced through their studies, with 85.5 per cent also reporting they were satisfied with the overall quality of their educational experience.

Strategies for improving student retention- from Australia’s leading student admissions group

BeMo has authored multiple best-selling books on academic consulting and claims to have helped more than 58 thousand applicants succeed in their dream schools across the globe. The company is now recognised as Australia’s leading admission experts, with proven insights to determine what it takes for students to succeed in higher education. They offer several strategies schools can follow to maximise their student retention. 

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Build student anticipation

According to the team at BeMo, “Building the anticipation and providing them (students) with enough information for an organised, smooth transition into your learning community is a great way to build trust and make students feel as though they are a part of something bigger”.

BeMo also encourages universities to remember the swaying power of digital marketing. 

“The moment a student accepts your offer to their program of choice is the moment you should begin including them in emails or newsletters, informing them of ways to connect on social media, how to pick their courses, and sending other vital information their way,” the company states.

Assess your students implement personalised intervention strategies

To make decisions about the student experience, educators need to assess the requirements of their students by collecting, analysing and interpreting data. This data can help educators gauge student progress, helping them evaluate and improve instructional approaches, campus culture, the student experience, and overall retention practices.

According to the BeMo team, there are many ways to do this successfully. Course-conducted assessments or optional surveys are a couple of options – all of which could also be anonymous. For example, the team at BeMo points towards formative assessments being widely used throughout many courses to inform instructors of students’ opinions, teaching and learning strategies that support student success, and any issues students are having or feedback they have. 

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Offer students continuous networking, social and mentorship opportunities

By utilising social media and other platforms to curate and encourage relationships between students before they arrive on campus, universities can help students feel as though they are less isolated in their studies, encouraging them to continue down their path. BeMo academic experts also note that universities shouldn’t ignore the importance of university-supported social groups, stating that they are a “great way to facilitate a sense of community and inclusion”.

Academic advising should be accessible and encouraged

Academic advisors are responsible for the personal, academic and professional development of students and are vital to helping students identify academic opportunities, special scholarships or grants.

To make the most of their guidance and direction, university students should know where to find their academic advisors and how to best connect with them. For institutions facing limitations, such as increased demand and too few advisors,  the consulting team at BeMo suggests educators pivot towards alternatives, such as offering additional advising hours, virtual sessions, or adding to the advising team.

Offer additional support, resources and preparatory services

Along with accessing passionate faculty members, students hoping to pursue graduate or professional school can benefit from academic consultation and preparatory services, as well as the opportunity to access additional support services, such as financial aid. 

Ensuring this information is regularly available through each student’s academic portal is a meaningful way to show students the many ways in which they are supported by your institution, even if they’re facing short or long-term academic or financial challenges that impact their studies.

By reaching out to show students they are valued members of the university community, tertiary institutions can take positive steps towards enhancing deeper connections with their students – and, hopefully, achieve improved levels of student retention.

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. Jarrod established his journalism career working on the education news and information site The Bursar. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.