Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Why Students Leave and What You Can Do Today to Retain Them

The above is a compilation of all the research we have done to date on why students really leave a school. This is not what they might tell you since they will generally "play to the interviewer" during their meeting with your exit counselor. (If you have one) Students will generally fall back on "personal reasons" as the excuse for leaving the school. They assume you will either not dig into their personal lives or will buy the soap opera they spin because they know we are basically voyeurs rather than intervention people. We do love a good sob story, even if it may not be true or the real reason the student is leaving. But then again, if it is "personal reasons" we are happy to accept that since then we aren't really accountable for some failure in the department, school or our so-called systems. Can't be held responsible for their personal problems, can we?

But when we dug a bit, the personal problems fall into into a few major categories which indicate that leaving students do have a sort of personal issue, a customer service issue - with the school. They don't like the way they were treated and that they take personally. They tell us that they feel the school was indifferent about them as a person, as a learner or as anything but a tuition revenue. That is the major reason they leave. They feel you don't really care about them individually. Once they feel you do not care, they are on the way out the door. This feeling violates Good Service Principle 1 "Everyone wants to attend Cheers University where everyone knows your name and they're awfully glad you came." There are 15 Principles by the way. If you'd like a copy of the 15 Principles of Good Customer College Service email me at or call at 413.219.6939.

The second major reason students quit a school is dissatisfaction with how the staff treats them. Staff here means anyone who works at the college. Generally students will point out some clerical or management staff as the prime meanies because they will be more lenient with faculty in general until one of them blows it big time. Then all hell breaks loose and its call the lawyers time. They want to believe their teachers, their doctors, care about them even if they don't seem to really show it much. They will remember the slights from staff, fixate on them as examples of the school's belief that "this would be a great place to work if it weren't for the students." (Heard that one before didja?) The students who leave feel they are being maltreated and will not pay for that. How many times have you heard students refer to how much they are paying and how much they deserve since they pay so much to go there? So they leave.

Leaving does not mean they don't go to another school although they will tell you they are taking time off. The don't want to insult you or have to explain their real reasons for leaving if they can avoid it. Confrontation is not a sought after event.)

The 2006 NSSE study indicates that over 60% of students attend more than one college. That should not comfort anyone if their school is one that loses more than receives students. Misery likes company but there are no revenue dollars in the misery of losing a large chunk of your enrollment, especially to those who get laid off to meet budget.

The third major reason students attrit (isn't that such a nice euphemism for run out the doors complaining about the school) is they are just plain unhappy with the school. You have spent so much time and money to get them to come that the school forgets it is much easier and much less costly to keep a student than to get them to begin with. Before classes, there are numerous communications, well planned orientations, events, even celebrations to make sure the students will show up. Once classes start, schools seem to forget that the happiness factor is important. And it is so simple to maintain actually. In fact, all the reasons for leaving a school can be alleviated rather easily.

When one thinks about the chart above, it indicates that 72% of students leave a college - your college - for customer service reasons.

72% If you could reduce attrition by even just (just he says, how ironic) by just say 50%, would that help your revenue and bottom line? Might customer service be an issue you should do something about?

Here is one way to start to reduce your attrition today.

Years ago, a colleague named Bill Schaar at Landing Community College taught me a secret of overcoming the feeling of indifference, of making people feel staff and everyone else cares and of making students feel happy about being at the school. SMILE. That's right - smile. Smile at students and one another as you walk the halls, walk on campus or anywhere you encounter a student. And say "good morning or afternoon or even just Hi". Then ask the person how he or she is. If the person answers with anything less than great, ask if there is anything you can do to make it better for him or her. That's right, stop and ask why it isn't great today and what can I do to make it better. That often surprises and delights right then and there since "how you doin'" is generally phatic language and not a show of interest. If there is something that you or someone else can do, do it. If there isn't, the very simple act of showing concern will start to make that student feel important, wanted and a valued part of the school. Thereby overcoming three of the major reasons why students really do leave schools. There are other ways of course but this is a good starting place. It can even make you live longer.

Any questions or comments? Need someone to make customer service a priority at your school. Contact me at or 413-219-6939.


Anonymous said...

This is so on the money. We started to have everyone on senior staff follow the smile and ask approach. The results have been excellent. Students smile even before the administrator says hello and they actually look forward to seeing us. We are a small career college but expect that our enrollment will get larger from what students have been saying about the smile campaign. They have started smiling more. thanks for the idea

Anonymous said...

There are many other reasons not listed as to why students leave schools.

One obvious omission is the level of corruption and academic dishonesty present. Honest, ethical, hardworking students become extremely angry when they find their work consistently undercut by widespread plagiarism and cheating. Faculty and administrative attitudes to these phenomena are key in student retention. If legitimate students are told "mind your own business" or "these are victimless crimes" by their professors, department heads or ombudsmen, they will adjust their attitudes correspondingly and most of these students will drop out either formally or mentally. This is a big issue in science and engineering programs, and also in business programs. Usually it is hidden under the rubric of program competitiveness.

A second issue (and one that plays a significant role in science and engineering education) is the presence of large unacculturated international student populations - at which point "culture shock" in the domestic student's OWN COUNTRY becomes an issue.