Workshop on Student RetentionThis is a featured page


Linzi J Kemp, Academic Area Coordinator
Center for Distance Learning, Empire State College, State University of New York


This workshop encourages participants to evaluate their institutional practices (administrative processes and systems) for contribution to, and detraction from student retention. The approach is that of student relationship management (SRM), through the utilization of an adapted marketing model.


Student. Retention. Practices. CRM. SRM. LRM. Relationship. Management. Customer. Marketing. Voice. BCG.


This workshop encourages participants to evaluate their institutional practices (administrative processes and systems) for contribution to, and detraction from student retention. The approach is that of student relationship management (SRM), through the utilization of an adapted marketing model. The adapted model (BCG) is a tool to analyze and classify the contribution of institutional practices to student retention. Following analysis and classification, participants evaluate the information for future institutional action on student retention.
Purpose Statement

Rowley (2003) says ‘so often institutions may instigate retention initiatives without understanding the problem’. The purpose of this workshop is to understand the problem through an investigation of current institutional retention initiatives. Other outcomes of the workshop include shared information and recommendations on student retention initiatives.

Research Question

The research question is; What new information can an analysis and classification of institutional practices contribute to the topic of student retention?


The presenter of this workshop is a faculty member with the Center for Distance Learning (CDL) and the Center for International Programs at Empire State College. Empire State College is one of the 64 institutions of the State University of New York (SUNY) with nearly 16,000 students studying through 35 teaching locations in seven regions throughout New York State. The presenter’s position is that of Academic Area Coordinator, managing an academic program in a role similar to that of an academic chairperson.

Student retention is relevant to the audience of chairpersons at this workshop because of its cost implications for institutions of higher education. A cost value analysis compares the retention of students favorably to the cost of acquiring new students (Kotelnikov, 2004). The topic of student retention is of further relevance as a high student attrition rate may lead to unfavorable comparisons between universities. Attrition is defined by Catalano & Eddy, (1993; Wells, 2003, p. 230) as “leaving college, regardless of reason, without completing degree requirements” (p.53). Besides the cost implications of student attrition, administrators will be concerned about the loss of opportunity for students who drop out. As a nation, low rates of undergraduates affects the country’s potential for economic competition and continuing prosperity (Raab & Adam, 2005, Seidman, 2005). Improvements in student retention are therefore of concern to all who work in higher education because:

‘For the want of a degree, the employee was lost,
For the want of this employee, the business was lost,
For the want of that business, the country was lost
And all for the want of a degree!’

The Problem of Student Retention

Depressingly, the resources of institutional monies, administrative time and faculty writing has failed to substantially increase student retention nationally. This is despite the reporting of retention data for every college in the country (National Council for Education Statistics (NCES)), despite a center concentrated on the study of student retention (Center for the Study of College Student Retention) and despite an academic journal (Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice) with 88 pages of references focused on the issue.

Recent figures reveal that “nearly 575 of all drop-outs from four year institutions leave before the start of their second year’ (Tinto, 1996, p.1; Raab & Adam, p. 87). Statistics show that only 50% of those who enter higher education actually earn their bachelors degree (Department of Education, Center for Educational Statistics; Seidman). Saba (2000), in the area of distance learning, suggests that since the British Open University opened its doors in 1971 one of the problems has been retention. At the author’s institution, student retention was set as a college priority in 2000 and continues to remain a college-wide goal (internal documents, 2000, 2005). For Empire State College, the published current retention figures are 39% for full-time students (FT) and 55% (Part-time (PT)), compared with a group (other SUNY schools) showing retention rates of 78% (FT) and 55% (PT) (NCES, 2005).

There are problems faced in recording accurate student retention data, particularly notable in a college serving mainly part-time and adult students. Given these problems, an institutional objective at Empire State College is to ‘develop and publish an adult student retention model’ (internal document, 2005). For internal planning and external publication, it is important to gain understandable figures for student retention, especially when the enrollment projections are set to increase; adult students (age 35+) + 5% (to 3.3 million) by 2014; PT students + 14% to 7.6 million (Hussar, 2005). Various enrollment and persistence patterns, highlights the complexity of gaining a ‘true’ story of student retention (Seidman). Whilst questions are raised about the validity of the currently recorded and published data, the problem of student attrition is constant.
A goal for CDL is to increase the current headcount of 4,500 matriculated students by improved retention practices. The retention focus for an academic area coordinator/academic chair is at the program level and recent course completion data shows that on average 75% of the students complete their courses. A concern is that students do not continue to graduation, even though there are high numbers completing courses. Different institutions find student retention a problem at other stages e.g. Motorola University, one of the first corporate universities into online curriculum found low course completion, although it is not stated what was defined as ‘low’ (Moskhinskie, 2001). There have been implications that ‘more students will drop out of online classes than traditional face-to-face classes (Diaz, 2002). In contrast, the Wright State University College of Nursing and Health has an online retention rate ranging from 85 to 93% (O’Brien & Renner, 2002). It is important to consider student retention at many stages because:

‘For the want of an assignment, the course was lost,
For the want of a course, the program was lost,
For the want of a program, the degree was lost,

A student encounters many institutional people and practices on the journey to a degree, student retention is therefore an institution-wide responsibility. There are many valid voices in an organization (Boje and Dennehy, April 2000), which can contribute various perspectives on internal practices. The drawing together of varied perspectives can contribute to a view of the educational institution as a whole system of student retention, rather than one of separated parts. One such forum at the CDL is the monthly meeting of faculty and professionals where, in October 2004, the presenter facilitated a version of this workshop. This current workshop for academic chairpersons offers an opportunity to extend the findings from the initial internal workshop.

Literature Review

The literature review concentrates on student retention issues from the perspective of where and how the institution intervenes in the life of a student. This review considers students as a majority, whereas literature focused on minority student retention issues can be sought further in the works of Swail, Redd & Perna, 2003, Gaither, 2005. As this author works primarily in online education, the literature search also consulted works on that educational model (Diaz, Keller, 1987 in Chyung, O’Brien & Renner). A further resource for student retention issues is an extensive review of literature and websites, provided in Adam & Gaither’s (2005) annotated bibliography.

Tinto’s and Astin’s works provide insight in the psychological and sociological field of student life. The Student Integration Model (Tinto, 1975 cited in Swail, Redd & Perna, Sandiford, 2003, and Tinto, 1993 cited in Raab & Adam) is arguably the most well known model of student retention. The Tinto model considers how integrated are the formal and informal college systems, because an effective integration of such systems increases the likelihood of a student’s institutional commitment and reduces the chance of them leaving. Tinto also posits that retention is linked to a student’s pre-entry attributes e.g. test scores, as well as linked to the student’s interaction with the social system e.g. peer group (Wells). In the non-traditional environment of adult learners and distance learning, questions arise about the validity of the Tinto Model (Wells, Nesler, 2004). The relevancy of pre-entry attributes can be affected, over time, either positively or negatively. For example, an adult student may have had the pre-entry attributes on leaving high school, but a lack of use, through the years, could leave them now unprepared for college. Or those adults who may have needed a remedial course in Math or English when younger, might have improved in that area through work experience. Interaction with academic systems and peer groups in a virtual environment, as opposed to a campus, could also change the significance of Tinto’s model in modern spatial and temporal educational settings.

Astin (1977, 1985 cited in Seidman) attributes student retention to the college’s involvement with the student, through a retention formula of positive experiences and interventions. These experiences and interventions reinforce persistency, increasing the individual student’s commitment to complete a degree. Again, Astin concentrates mainly on the traditional model of education. Moving from a psychological/sociological perspective, but still considering the institutional systems and processes is the Organizational Elements Model (Kaufman, 1988; Chyung). The model posits an integration of the means (input) and ends (outputs) of the student experience. Those students who are happy with inputs and processes at the University will more likely accomplish and experience successful learning outcomes. The Kaufman model is of interest from the perspective of inputs and processes. However, there is a lack of attention to connecting institutional processes with the student, as the processes are considered in isolation from them.

Consideration of retention practices, through the perspective of organizational involvement with the student, caused this author to regard the topic within a marketing framework. The framework is that of Customer Relationship Management (CRM), ‘a CRM business strategy places the customer at the center of the organization’s universe’ (Grant & Anderson). Student Relationship Management (SRM) has developed from CRM and is about forming a relationship with the student through offering quality and service (Lemon, 2004). Raab & Adam refer to the Kellogg Commission report (1997), Returning to our Roots: The Student Experience that characterizes universities as communities that need to be “student centered” and [put] students first” (p. 98). A student-centered pedagogical approach fits with SRM by placing the student at the center of learning and the teacher as ‘a guide on the side’. There is some objection to likening students to customers, in a belief that education has swung too far towards being focused on the student as customer/client. Demands are made from those who reject the customer stance towards more rigor and less flexibility in institutional relationships with the student (Keller, 1992 cited in Fredenberger, Marshall and Ware, 1996). Equally, through SRM, educational and marketing perspectives are brought together through the student voice and self-identification as ‘customer’ (Langan, 1997).

Within a marketing framework, customer relationship management, as applied to higher education is conceived as both a business strategy and a tool for improving student retention (Grant & Anderson, 2002). The University of Illinois specifically looks to SRM to provide a strategy to promote student retention by adding value through a personalized approach (Shaik, 2005). The University of Michigan (2005) has a project underway to develop an SRM system, the aim is to provide an overview of when and how a student interacts with the university. Initially the SRM system developed at Michigan will be for admissions and recruitment purposes, but it is anticipated that, when tested, others, who interact with the student population, will make use of the system. Milliron (1999, 2001) terms CRM, as applied to the community college environment, as ‘Learner Relationship Management (LRM)’. John Moores University U.K. has an LRM project to interpret CRM systems for higher education, ‘to deliver a truly learner-centred business model’ (Taylor, 2001).

In this age of SRM it is noteworthy that the prospective student is encouraged to access a school’s data (including retention statistics) through portals such as the site. There the student, like any customer, is free to make comparisons between available products (schools) and thereby make more informed decisions on choice of school. It is therefore appropriate to incorporate SRM as a strategy, it places the student at the center in any retention model and maintains the institutional focus on helping students (Swail et al).

The theoretical framework

The framework used derives from the business strategy of Customer Relationship Management/Student Relationship Management. Consequently, institutional practices are evaluated through the lens of an adapted marketing approach known as the BCG matrix (Boston Consulting Group; Kotler, 2006). The BCG matrix classifies products according to their contribution to the success of an organization. A basic summary is:

STARs - products that require investment (time/money) for success.
QUESTION MARKs - products where there is a question as to whether they are successful .
CASH COWs - Established and successful products.
DOGs – Products that are unsuccessful.

The BCG formula has been adapted (Kemp, 2004) for the purposes of analyzing institutional practices thus,

STARs - Practices that need investment (time/money) to retain students.
QUESTION MARKs -Practices with an uncertain contribution to student retention.
CASH COWs - Established and successful practices that retain students.
DOGs - Practices that do not retain students.

Collection of data

Brainstorm – all participants (15 minutes)
Following the ‘life cycle’ of students, participants initially brainstorm how their institutions support registration through to graduation (Fredenberger Marshall & Ware). At this stage, the data is recorded onto a flipchart to be used as stimulation for the analysis that will be conducted in workshop groups.

Analysis of Data

Groupwork (30 minutes)
Workshop participants are randomly divided into four groups (profiled as 1. Star, 2. Question mark, 3. Cash cow, 4. Dog). Numbering participants as 1-4 in sequence facilitates random group membership. A maximum of six members per group will support members’ ability to contribute to the group discussion. Initially using the brainstormed data, the objective for each group is to reach a decision as to which institutional practices fit into their profile. Further practices may also be considered at this stage. Decision-making is dependant on group members sharing their knowledge of institutional practices. A volunteer records, onto a flipchart, the practice and a brief rationale for classifying it as within the group’s profile.

Evaluation of Data

Feedback (20 minutes – 5 minutes per group, 15 minutes evaluative discussion)
A nominated speaker from each group feeds back information from the analysis stage to all participants; a table (Appendix I) is supplied for individuals to record these findings. Workshop participants then evaluate that information through a further discussion on the practice/classification rationale. Participants have recorded the workshop information (Appendix I) and can use it further to facilitate a discussion on student retention at their home institution. The workshop findings are then a way to open up further internal inquiry into student retention within institutions of Higher Education.

In conclusion, the workshop will have collected data through a brainstorm session on institutional practices, analyzed those practices into classifications and evaluated the rationale for such classifications. Supported by the findings from the workshop, further internal discussions on student retention can then take place at individual institutions. A step forward will have been taken to utilize a relationship management approach to student retention. Enabling institutions of higher education to further support students in achieving their goal of a degree (Rowley).

Appendix 1 Table for recording classifications

$ *



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