Sunday, February 17, 2013

Making Engagement and Retention Work through Customer Service

etention, academic customer service, retention, enrollment, students, attrition, graduation

There are many retention efforts that work and some that do not. Most are almost always consciously based on some academic or intervention approach.
The approaches are often also based on some scholarly research on educational practice. Some may use established methods such as First Year techniques. Others may use a survey tool such as the NSSE to determine their educational engagement with students. Some use research and its results such as the Hierarchy of Student Decisions below. They all use some rational basis for their program or efforts. They may often have good results and that is great.

But after working and talking with thousands of students at colleges, universities, community and career colleges, one thing becomes very clear. The programs that are most successful are not ones that increase the educational, intellectual, academic, or intellectual core of the experience. The approaches that seek to engage students more fully in scholastic or academic experiences such as research may or may not really work. The success depends on something the researchers and implementers too often overlook. 

Retention is primarily an emotional, not intellectual decision

The decision to attend may well have a strong intellectual basis as the Hierarchy shows but the emotional attachment cannot, or should not, be overlooked in how we make choices. The choice to stay or go is an almost primal, just about limbic (fight or flee) response to feelings about and for/from the school. A student will choice to stay or leave depending on how he or she feels about the experience she is sensing. Yes sensing. Not a cognitive process but an emotional one similar to the responses we have to people and especially people we love. Care about. Feel an attachment to. Or hate. Or distrust. Or have hurt us.

Retention is an emotional issue. Not an academic one. The programs that work are ones that make the students feel an attachment to and from the school. The programs that succeed are the ones that emotionally engage the students. That develop a sense in the students that the school really does care about them. A feeling that they are valued. That they can trust the school not to betray them. Not hurt them. Approaches that show concern and desire to really help and get engaged are ones that will work.

For example, an article on the State of Georgia’s 60% graduation rate in six years (150% of time), the following approaches are cited

Georgia State University improved graduation rates by putting an upperclassman in tough classes — a student who has already aced the course — who helps other students. Georgia Gwinnett College requires professors to call students if they miss too many classes. Clayton State will assume more control over what classes students take. Southern Poly plans to improve its advising system. (Atlanta Journal Constitution 5/11/2010)

These approaches all have one thing in common. They reach out to students in a very practical way to say “we care about you. We give a damn. The upperclassman at Georgia State who I assume is there to help is a way of visually and pragmatically showing we are caring enough to bring you someone you can work with. Professors at Georgia Gwinnet are really walking the walk and truly showing concern. Noticing that someone is missing and contacting the student is a sure and strong way of saying “I care.” And let’s face it, professors are the ones that students want to most engaged with and to.

Oh yes, attendance or non-attendance are the canary in the mine for retention by the way. Students who do not attend classes are the most likely to leave the school. So the calls from professors at Gwinnet are very important. If they would call after EVERY missed class, they would increase retention by at least 7% when coupled with a clear and emphatic institutional attendance policy which Gwinnet does not have. Here is its statement on attendance.

The classroom experience is a vital component of the college learning experience. Interaction with instructors and with other students is a necessary component of the learning process. Students are expected to attend regularly and promptly all class meetings and academic appointments. Students who are absent from classes bear the responsibility of notifying their instructors and keeping up with class assignments in conjunction with instructor provisions in the course syllabus. An individual instructor bears the decision as to whether a student’s absence is excused or unexcused and whether work will be permitted to be made up; the decision of the instructor in this case is final. Students who are absent because of participation in college-approved activities (such as field trips and extracurricular events) will be permitted to make up the work missed during their college-approved absences.

Students whose absence exceeds two-thirds of the total class meetings in a semester may be administratively withdrawn from the course by the instructor. This includes excused and unexcused absences. A student administratively withdrawn from a course due to excessive absences may re-enroll for that course in a subsequent semester during which the course is offered.

If the classroom experience is a vital component of the college learning experience, and interaction with instructors and with other students is a necessary component of the learning process why just expect students to show up? Why not insist on it? Breathing is a vital component of the living experience. For the body to not demand that we breathe on a regular, consistent basis is to allow it not to attain something extremely important- living. So if we choose to hold our breath, to stop breathing for a little while the involuntary system demands that we start NOW. It does all it can to get us breathing because it knows that if we are allowed to only breathe a third of the time required to sustain life, we may well drop out – permanently.

The student body should be given the same level of care and concern as the human body. Classroom experience is a vital component of the college learning experience.  Interaction with instructors and with other students is a necessary component of the learning process. So like breathing students should not be allowed to take just two-thirds of the classroom breathing required. Little says we really care about you than making the students take all the breaths they need through a campus-wide attendance policy that does not allow for missed breaths without a good reason and having the Doctor (PhD) follow-up any missed inhalations of knowledge and interaction in the classroom.

Strengthening the Engagement 

I recall my days at the University of Massachusetts in Boston when Dan Wakefield or J Lee Grove would invite students from their classes to their home. That was a very clear sign they cared. Or while at Maine Maritime Academy, my wife and I would have large gatherings of “middies” over for spaghetti dinners. This was like meeting the parents when a couple is serious about one another. Not one of the students in either engagement dropped out of school and UMass-Boston had (and unfortunately still does have) less than a 33% cohort graduation rate.

The suggestion is not necessarily that faculty invite students back to their homes but that would not be such a terrible thing.  One can do as Dr. Gordon Gee, President of the Ohio State University does to show his sincere interest in students. Walk the campus and go where they go. Gee is recognized as one of the country’s best, most outstanding university presidents not just because he raises money and the University’s stature but because he engages students and others on campus every chance he gets as a vital aspect of raising money and stature. Go to a play at OSU; he is there. Go to a sporting event; he is there. Walk campus and suddenly “Gordo”, as the students call him, is there to talk and walk with you. Even at a fraternity party, he’ll often be there if he can. This is engagement. This is a dynamic show of caring. Like a suitor to the students, he wants to be with the people he wants to be engaged with and to.

Gee realizes something that more academics need to understand. Engagement is the surest way to retention. Not that he takes a calculated approach to what he does. He simply loves the job of president and oddly enough students. He seems to realize that the job of the President is not just “herding cats” (faculty, trustees, politicians, the public…) but attending to the needs of the core constituencies of OSU – students. This, I fear, is not a realization shared with enough college and university presidents and administrators who see their job as herding those cats and trying to keep the happy.

But Gee is engaged with and to the students and they love him for it. They will even defend what some have challenged as a more than generous salary because they feel they are also engaged to Gordo and he is the clearest representative of OSU.

This is the same way that two people become engaged with one another with the belief the engagement will lead to marriage. They fall for one another. They do things together. They show they care about one another. And they build trust in one another. In fact trust is uniquely important to the success of the relationship. If that is broken, the engagement either ends or becomes very tenuous.

For higher education, engagement is the continuing process of enrollment.


That process of being affianced, of learning about and with one another culminates in a marriage called graduation. It is at graduation that the wedding takes place. Even a name change takes place as with weddings. From that day forth the graduate will add “graduate of X college or university” to his or her name. And this is a wedding that no legal divorce can break.

But if there is a rift during the engagement process; a sign that one partner (the school) does not really care about me; an indication that the school is indifferent to me or does something to break my trust that it cares about me – the engagement is off. There will be no wedding.

And how does that happen? How do I ignore thee? Let me count the ways…” I don’t care if you miss class. I don’t care to meet with you when you need help from me. I give you bad advising. I send out bill but not much else. I am rude to you when you come to my office or window. Worse, I am indifferent to your need or problem. I shuffle you around the campus until you are turfed back to me. I only schedule required classes once a year and don’t let you know so you have to extend your stay and costs. I don’t answer the phone when you call and surely do not return you voice message. I…I…I… I finally do not show that I care about our engagement or you 76% of the time.

Higher ed retention engagement is a process that continues every day the student is in school. It is a period of courting each student as one would court a fiancé until the wedding ( and hopefully after so they will donate to the annual fund drive). Some schools do such a great job of courting, of stitching in during the enrollment process to increase yield. But most all schools forget that getting a partner to agree to marry you in the future is not necessarily a guarantee that a wedding will take place. They refuse to understand that every day is a decision day. A decision whether to keep the ring or give it back depending on how you treat me and show me if you really care enough for me to finally marry you by graduating from your school.

So just only just over 50% of all engagements succeed in higher education. That means that almost 50% return the ring you offered when you asked them to become engaged to you in admissions and do not come back. And 84% of failed college and student marriages fail because of a poor academic customer service, poor or weak showing that a school cares in the period during the engagement period.

Yes there are some marriages that will take place even if the student is treated as an afterthought. There will always be marriages that take place because of the value of the wealth of changing ones name and gaining the social and economic standing that comes with the name. But if you are not one of the major brand colleges or universities, work at engaging students well.

Ten Ways To Increase Engagement For Retention

2. Develop a good stitch in process that continues through to graduation.

3. Be Gee-like. Walk the campus and engage students where they live.

4. Put in place a required attendance policy and enforce it.

5. Develop an attendance follow-up system that will have every student contacted the same day he or she misses a class.

N. Raisman & Associates is the leader in increasing student retention, enrollment and revenue through workshops, presentations, research, training and academic customer service solutions for colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as businesses that work with them 
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