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Recruiting Intelligence

The Rise of Student Retention as Key to Recruitment


From your steeped-in-student-recruitment vantage point, you see quite clearly the symbiotic relationship retention has with your recruitment efforts and resulting yield. It has everything to do with your student services, student success, and all the small-batch interactions you do to ensure your students experience both.

As David Hautanen, Vice President for Enrollment Management at St. Mary’s College of Maryland said so well in a recent Recruiting Intelligence post: "Retention is both a moral and economic imperative." We wholeheartedly agree. And it is as true for students as it is for institutions. 

We can dive into all of this with you at #Nafsa2022 in Denver. Let us know if you’ll be there and want to share a cup of coffee.

As campuses across the globe emerge from their pandemic safety bubbles and return to recruitment as usual (more or less), now is a really good time to rethink your institution’s retention efforts—and the student-first mentality it requires.

The bottom line: it’s your team’s soft skills that matter most and their availability to use them. Read on for our take…

Move beyond the hard sell.

Boiled down, recruitment zeroes in on your high-quality programs and faculty, facilities and campus environment, and your inspiring outcomes. You might consider these some of the “hard sell” tangibles. Add to that your efforts to communicate the intangibles of your institution’s aspirational truths and you have the recruitment marketing plan. Or at least the messaging for it. (You’ll still need all that operational stuff around audience targeting, segmentation, channel selection, campaign execution, tracking, and analysis – all the stuff our team is known for).

Once your prospective students actually enroll, it’s all-in on retention-focused initiatives that connect the dots between the aspirations you promised and the reality that actually takes shape on campus. You see the first-year orientation as just the starting point, not the finish line, right? Just checking.

That first year is just so critical. If you can turn a freshman into a sophomore, odds are in your favor they will stay through graduation. Early and often interactions really do pay off. And with the dramatic rise in student demand for mental health support, the level of effort required for retention is growing. So…

It’s about the soft skills.

Think of your retention-focused work as akin to your institution’s soft skills: getting students involved with the campus at many levels, helping them make personal and emotional connections to your institution and community, and setting them up for personal success beyond academic success.

You may recall the advice four international students at AIEA2022 said they would give to friends back home about studying in the US: “Come here to study but be ready. It is on you to find the opportunities.”

This was followed by the advice they had for you, the institutional leaders: “Produce communications to your current international students that are proactive, not reactive. Be instructive and give us an extra hand. Know that our anxiety is going to be high.”

Were you listening? We certainly were.

What they were telling us is so important. It’s easy to forget how much new students – especially those coming from outside the US, but domestic too – don’t already know. Yet, we are reminded of it all the time from the students and alums we speak with.

From various international student interviews we’ve conducted recently:

  • “I didn’t realize American professors had office hours. Teachers from my country would never meet with students.”
  • “I didn’t realize how much I’d enjoy sports. I just stayed focused on my academics. When I finally tried intramurals my junior year, it changed my life.”

You’ve likely heard similar tales of “I just didn’t realize...”

Still, we have the audacity to wonder why students aren’t taking advantage of all the amazing programs we offer, and why so many transfer each year. If you take a student-first approach, a larger percentage will stay.

Because what students are telling us is they need more touchpoints. They need someone to invite them to join something. And they need that encouragement more than once. And the invitation needs to be personal. Mass emails are not invitations. They are just one more in a steady stream of emails your office sends and students delete.

Students need the kind of touchpoints that build affinity with your institution. The kind that looks them in the eye and not their phone. To that end, we offer a few suggestions, reminders really, of what you need to be doing right now to engage with students and retain their enrollment.

5 Recommendations Right Now

  1. Fund an active ambassador program. Arm a broad, friendly team of students with gift cards to the local coffee shop or student union cafe and have them take new students out all semester long. Does it cost money? Just a little. Is the friendly flow of peer interaction worth it? More than you probably know. A smart small-batch communication strategy: push students to interact cross-culturally and often. Pre-arrival, most international students imagine they will make local friends and they usually find it much harder to achieve that goal than they anticipated. You can fix that.
  2. Get your leadership involved. Leadership needs to support the idea of one-on-one connection. And they need to support training. Many students have social struggles – whether it’s their English proficiency or they’re just really shy and nervous – so they may need more than a little encouragement. Your ambassadors need to understand this and learn different ways to engage. And your ambassadors will be far more engaged themselves if leadership lets them know how valuable their efforts are and offers training beyond just handing them the gift card.
  3. Build relationships with advisors and faculty. Some students don’t realize they are entitled to meet with staff or faculty. Other students feel uncomfortable or don’t see the purpose. The goal is to form strong mentoring programs that make the student-to-staff relationship feel more natural. Note that not every faculty or staff member intuitively knows how to mentor effectively or draw students into the classroom experience. Offer training and support to these key influencers and educators. When students feel seen and heard by their professors, the connection to the institution becomes much harder to break. Embrace and challenge faculty to join your retention effort.
  4. Ask how it’s going. Whether through formal surveys and polls or casually through ice cream socials and Netflix Nights (ideally, all of the above), ask students about their experience. These insights can help you act quickly to help students who may be struggling. Our recent post about maintaining a student-first approach offers more ideas around this.
  5. Help them understand credits, and what’s at stake. We’ve spoken to more than one student who came to the US with the intention of starting their academic pursuits at a lesser-known option and finishing their studies at a brand-name university. For those who opted to stay put, one of two things typically changed their minds: they either realized how many credits they already have (thus how many they might lose during transfer) or they built a real affinity for their current institution and no longer see the grass as being greener elsewhere. Your team can address both of these realities. Again, advisors and personal interactions are important here.

These are just a few ideas. We’ve got so many more.

Bonus Point: Use of technology (artificial intelligence) to help you understand which students might be struggling can be extremely powerful and helpful. It can also be done in creepy ways. And it can be time consuming and costly to implement. Not all institutions are ready and able to pursue this path. Something to consider while you get your people and their soft skills mobilized.

The key takeaway: it’s your soft skills and small-batch interactions that make all the difference in your rate of retention. If you need a partner who can help recruit and retain students, we know a great agency – a group of energetic folks with a deep understanding of the big picture. Be in touch.

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