This is part one of a multi-part article on guaranteed ways to increase retention.
The decision to leave a school is not often a rational one. Students do not sit down and work through a decision-making model to determine if they should stay or go. Just as emotion played a major role in their choice of a college, emotion plays a major role in choosing to leave. In fact, the decision is almost never, if ever phrased as “after weighing the pros and cons, I have determined that I will leave the institution. No, the normal statement is closer to “f..k this place, I’m outa here” most usually in direct response to some precipitating incident like an interaction with someone at the school. Retention and attrition are emotion-laden issues.
It is often true that during an exit interview at the school a student will cite “personal reasons” for leaving. They know the college will accept that as a valid reason and may not probe much more. What the student is really saying is “I am telling you it is a personal reason to get through this and leave without having to go through someone trying to talk me into staying. Most often, what “personal reasons” really means is “personally I can’t stand this place. You don’t treat me well…. You don’t give a damn about me; just my money….You don’t have the courses I need when I need them…I can’t get help or answers when I need them…I just get shuffled from office to office…This is not what I was sold….My issues are ignored…This place is just not worth the time, money and investment so just let me get the heck out of here…So personally, I hate this place!”
These are emotion-laden personal relationship issues that can be resolved quite easily through an appropriate application of academic, not retail but academic customer service solutions. In fact, our annual survey/study of why students leave a two or four-year college or university shows quite clearly that 84% of all drops are due to college customer service issues.
The three major reasons students cited were
1. the College Doesn’t Care
2. Poor Service and Treatment
3. It Just is Not Worth It
The fourth most common reason was “financial or couldn’t afford it” but this was often cited in addition to one of the top three reasons. Financial was seldom cited alone. The drops just did not feel the cost was worth the investment. If they had, they said they would have stayed. So though money and the ability to pay is a major focus of many school dropout prevention programs, it is really not where the attention should be placed. Indeed, if students feel the cost could be worth the investment, they will do what they must to stay in school. In fact, a College Board study Who Borrows Most? Bachelor Degree Recipients with High Levels of Student Debt by Baum and Steele (2010) indicates that students will indeed take out loans to stay in school and graduate even though the debt may finally saddle them with a life-long burden. But if they do not feel the debt is worth it, they will drop out.
The Contract and Engagement
Call them students or whatever euphemism one wants, the fact is that students are consumers of what the college or university has sold to them and provides. Students and their families have been sold on a set of promises ranging from a vague mission to better their lives and the world to the usual marketing images of “personal attention from a caring faculty and staff with small classes and all the services needed for you to be successful in your studies and future career...” As a result, they pay out thousands, tens of thousands, a hundred thousand dollars to attend the school and receive what they were sold. This offer of services, acceptance of the offer and exchange of money for the services preferred is the very essence of a contract between two parties. The contract does then creates a set of obligations upon the service provider (hereinto called the college) to furnish the customer (hereinto called the student) said promised services (attention, small classes, personal attention, caring, problem resolution, instruction, training, tutoring, access to faculty/administrators, assistance, support…). The customer is obligated to fulfill the obligations of payment and follow college policies as might be in a student handbook or course syllabi which are addenda to the contract and create sub-contracts in themselves.
If the college does not provide the student all that was promised/sold by the marketing and admissions process to entice the student to attend and pay, the student’s expectations are broken as well as the contract. The result is that the customer becomes angered that the contract has been broken and will normally try to get the services promised or just decide it isn’t worth it and leave.
Dropping out is the traditional response. Though in our increasingly heated and litigious society, this will likely change. There will be a student who has paid tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a set of promised and contracted for services but has not received them and he or she will bring a suit against the school to recover costs, time spent as well as future earnings lost. All the student will have to do is show the marketing that for example promised small classes and then the section of X he had to attend in a lecture hall with 250 others. Or promised tutoring by professionals but was unable to get the tutoring or was given a non-professional peer tutor; or went to the faculty member’s office hours and the professor was not there on a number of occasions or simply said he or she did not have time to help and the student who subsequently failed the required class. Or given indifferent or even inaccurate advising and a course offering schedule that does not even have the required courses offered. Considering the increasingly skeptical and even negative attitude of the public toward higher education as discussed in Squeeze Play 2010, a jury of college student parents would likely find the student’s case that an expansive contract was breached to be compelling.
The contract also sets up asset of human expectations including the sense of trust. Entering into a contract requires the customer to extend trust to the service provider thus setting up a sense of an engagement between the college and the student. This extends the sense of trust just as an engagement to be wed sets up a strong need for trust in one another. If an event occurs to break or disrupt the faith, a very negative emotional response is the likely result. The engagement is off as in “I quit. I am dropping out of this place.” If there is not a full break, just a major frustration as caused quite often by the campus shuffle, the relationship becomes quite tentative requiring an infusion of good will and attention from the one who broke the engagement. This normally does not occur so the event just sets the process in place that will lead to the engagement being broken for good as a result of other problems that tell the student he or she is not important or the experience is not worth the further investment of time, money and trust in the school’s word.
But again, the decision to leave the college, university, community or career college is not a cool, rational one. It is as emotional as one party to an engagement catching the other lying to him or here, or worse faking interest. So the retention programs that do work are ones that focus on the emotional engagement process that tie the student into the school better. These are ones that generate attachment and a sense that we care to increase the students’ trust that the engagement will last and the contract met.
What student’s want is proof that their buying into the school and its promise of engagement are for real. They want the school to fulfill its promises and especially the one that it will focus on their needs and success and in so doing show real care about them. They want evidence that the school is reaching out to them and not just making them do all the reaching. They want to feel important, cared for and valued. These are all issues that pertain to the human, the emotional dimensions and not to intellectual ones. These are all issues that fall into the realm of academic customer service.
The author Dr. Neal Raisman is the leading presenter, researcher and consultant on customer service for retention in colleges, universities, community and career colleges in the US, Canada and Europe. He and his associates have provided retention solutions for over 300 schools and businesses that want to work with higher education. Dr. Raisman is the author of over 400 articles and four books including his latest bestseller The Power of Retention; More Customer Service for Higher Education available from The Administrators' Bookshelf in hard copy and digital editions.
If you would like to discuss a retention issue or see if he is available to come to your school or business for a workshop, presentation or other retention solution such as a full customer servicing audit, CALL 413.219.6939 OR CLICK NOW FOR A FREE 30 MINUTE CONSULTATION ON ANY RETENTION OR CUSTOMER SERVICE ISSUE. Start improving your enrollment and revenue NOW.
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