How proactive, well-timed communications can promote persistence

Leaders of COE units have long known that the experience of the “nontraditional” student is really the typical student experience. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) designates more than 70% of currently enrolled postsecondary students as having one or more characteristics of a nontraditional learner, and notes that these students are automatically at higher risk for attrition than their traditional counterparts.

Further examination of NCES data reveals that:

  • 32% of students enrolled in postsecondary education work full-time
  • 37% attend part-time
  • 40% are older than 25 years of age

Individuals with three or more characteristics of the nontraditional student are at moderate to high risk of not completing, with nontraditional students more likely to stop out in their first year and less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years than their traditional counterparts.

Seven Characteristics of Nontraditional Learners

Seven characteristics of non-traditional students

Retention and graduation strategies that work well for traditional, campus-based students have only partial applicability for working adults, who often have little connection to an institution and face competing demands on their time. Lacking sufficient resources to duplicate the robust support resources of the main campus, most COE units require effective yet lower-cost approaches to meeting student needs.

Non-traditional student continuum

Proactive communication prevents stop-outs before they occur

Certainly some stop-outs are not preventable, but in many cases the impulse to stop out stems from something seemingly minor like difficulty acquiring the right textbook or finding an alternative section time that fits better with the student’s schedule.

Regis University’s School of Professional Studies monitors a list of currently enrolled graduate students who are not registered for future courses. Staff review the graduate registration census during the third week of every term. Unenrolled students receive an email reminding them to re-enroll. After the email campaign, the number of unenrolled students in Fall 2013 dropped from 1,062 to 811.

Survey: What 8,000 students told us about how they want you to communicate with them

In follow-up, all remaining unregistered students receive a phone call from a re-enrollment counselor assigned to support specific graduate programs. In this term, after the personalized calls an additional 579 students registered.

Outreach Plan to Unregistered Students

Outreach plan to unregistered students

As a result of this outreach, an additional 830 students enrolled at Regis. With a conservative estimate of $1,500 per course, the practice yielded $1.1 million in tuition revenue. When re-enrollment counselors are not calling current students to remind them to register for the next term, they reach out to “step-outs”—those students who have been out for one semester—as well as stop-outs who have been un-enrolled for at least a year.

Timing is everything

Recognizing that some students will still need to step away for a period of time, Bellevue University secures students’ permission to re-approach them at a future date. Each student at Bellevue is assigned an advisor at entry who checks in with him or her after every two courses. Advisors monitor student progress and can proactively intervene if there is an indicator of risk.

For example, an advisor might see a low grade on a transcript and learn that the student has recently lost a job or experienced a family emergency that negatively impacted academic performance. In this moment, there are two different paths this student might take: Ideally, the student would decide to continue their studies. More likely, however, the student will decide to withdraw. The Bellevue advisor conducts an exit interview before the withdrawal date and asks the student when they want to hear from Bellevue again—in other words, the student estimates the length of their stop-out period.

Bellevue University's Support Tracking System

Bellevue University's support tracking system

Bellevue has found the estimated stop-out length to vary considerably, from four months to two years. No matter the length of time, the advisor logs it into the CRM and sets an automated reminder to call the student after the discussed period.

Defining the stop-out length alleviates concern over “bothering” students too often, and the institution also better allocates advisor time to call students only when they are most ready to return. The program has enjoyed tremendous success. Since implementation in 1997, more than 5,000 students have been contacted, 2,600 have re-enrolled, and more than 1,850 returning students have graduated.

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