Improving Student Retention: A Comprehensive Guide for Higher Education Administrators

May 08, 2024

ith competition fierce for a shrinking pool of college-bound high school graduates, student retention has become a critical concern for higher ed institutions. Once mostly the domain of academic affairs, the issue of student success and persistence has moved closer to center stage for admissions offices as well in recent years, with universities looking to offset gaps in acceptance yield. In this guide, HAI offers practical strategies that administrators can implement now to enhance student retention and contribute to the overall success of their institutions.

Early Intervention Systems

Early identification of, and intervention tactics for at-risk students are the top ways that colleges can positively affect retention rates. But what do we mean by early?

While some schools begin to monitor for problems right after the first semester, HAI recommends starting even BEFORE new students land on campus. Our work across various higher ed institutions has consistently shown that successful enrollment of the first-year class means enrolling students who will thrive at your institution and eventually graduate. For this reason, we strongly recommend enhancing your yield models by building a model of first-to-second year retention as well. As you weigh different financial aid awarding strategies, the retention model can be used to produce projections of second year headcount, characteristics, and revenue. We have often found that an aid strategy that is a bit more generous will net more revenue over two years, due to improved retention, compared with a leaner strategy that looks more favorable in the first year. In addition, a retention model that is built using only pre-enrollment factors can help identify which students may need extra support in order to succeed; and the added support can be put in place before the student even arrives on campus.

Of course, evaluating first semester grades remains crucial as well. Top indicators of potential problems include a pattern of absenteeism or poor grades, as well as a request for academic transcripts. Using predictive modeling to identify at-risk students early allows for timely support, whether through tutoring services, counseling, or academic advising, mitigating potential issues before they escalate.

Comprehensive Orientation Programs

Well-designed orientation programs can set the tone for a student's entire college experience. For example, providing a comprehensive overview of campus resources and life can help students feel more confident and engaged from the start, and early review of academic expectations can help students from running afoul later. Among some of the most meaningful orientation programs HAI sees today are those that take place virtually, which allows for community-building well in advance of the start of the first semester. International students in particular can benefit from pre-semester “classes” that meet regularly to discuss American, regional and campus culture, as well as academic rules and expectations (and how these may differ from the students’ home cultures). Such classes also serve as a forum in which international students can meet each other and forge relationships and community before ever setting foot on campus.

Personalized Academic Advising

Create a personalized academic advising system that focuses on individual student needs by assigning dedicated advisors to students, and fostering a mentorship relationship that goes beyond course selection. Some of the most successful advising programs we’ve seen intentionally fuse academic and career advising, with the advisor actively matching and recommending immersion trips, study abroad programming, and alumni mentor meetings to students based on the student’s interests, talents, and curiosity. This personalized approach ensures that students receive guidance tailored to their academic and career goals, making them feel more connected to the institution and more confident about their futures. HAI also recommends considering the implementation of two-way texting between advisors and students, with the advisor sending reminders and prompts about internships, career fairs, and research and grant funding opportunities, and students more easily setting up appointments or confirming academic deadlines.

Foster a Sense of Community

Students stay where they feel a strong sense of community, a truism borne out across various demographic groups. For example, USA Today reports college graduation rates that are 20% higher among students participating in Greek life versus those who do not, a critical point given that males are attending college and graduating with less frequency than in the past. At the same time, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that retention rates for Black and Latinx students are significantly lower (64.9% and 68.6%, respectively) than that of their white counterparts (79.3%). Clearly there is much work to be done to create community and support for diverse groups across campus, from engaging student affinity groups in recruitment and orientation activities to involving advisors, faculty and alumni of color as mentors from the first semester onward. HAI recommends looking at your first-to-second-year retention numbers by various groups/demographics to see where you might have the biggest opportunity to build community on your campus.

Flexible Learning Options

With numbers for “non-traditional” students rising and student expectations having changed since the COVID pandemic, it’s critical that institutions offer more flexible learning options, such as online courses, hybrid programs, or part-time study opportunities. Providing flexibility accommodates students with various commitments, including work and family responsibilities, increasing the likelihood of their persistence.

Regular Feedback and Assessment

Regularly assess the effectiveness of retention strategies through student feedback and data analysis. Surveys, focus groups, and academic performance metrics can provide valuable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of current initiatives, allowing for continuous improvement.


In the pursuit of higher student retention, higher education administrators play a pivotal role in creating a supportive and inclusive learning environment. By implementing these strategies, institutions can enhance student success, foster a sense of belonging, and contribute to the overall growth and reputation of the institution. Through a holistic approach that addresses academic, social, and financial aspects, administrators can ensure that students not only enroll but persist and thrive until graduation.

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