Saturday, December 27, 2008

Now That You Have Been Admitted, Will You Stay?...

When does the retention of a learner begin? Admissions, acceptance, enrollment, orientation, first semester... When?

For me this is one of the most fundamental questions I ask as an adult educator. In fact it consumes a lot of my time and is one of the most important things I do as an academic chair - how do we retain learners once they have been admitted into our programmes? Do we want to retain them if they don't want to stay? How do we create an environment where learners want to stay in their programme or if they do leave that they are making an informed decision, not just an "I quit!" impulse?

To answer the opening question, IMHO retention of learners begins before they apply - it starts in the development and delivery of our programmes and in the creation of the materials we use to inform prospective learners about what we have to offer them. Many of the learners that I see who are struggling tell me that the programme they are in wasn't what they expected - that it is different, or more difficult, or just not for them. So for them, they made an uninformed decision about their programme. In some cases we retain these learners as part-time learners over an extended period of time, but many just fade away...

We do some great things here at the College to try and inform learners before they commit to a programme - our College Prep folks are out in the high schools, we conduct "Test Drives" for prospective learners to come in and spend a day with a programme, "Jump Start" events for accepted learners to come in and have their questions answered, and "Parents as Career Coaches" sessions to involve parents, families, and friends in the learner's College experiences. All of these tools help learners make informed decisions.

Then why do we still have significant retention issues - some of my programmes have attrition rates approaching 30% at the end of the Fall semester. Almost without exception these lost learners are ones who enrolled in a programme, paid their tuition, showed up for orientation, attended classes for a few weeks, and then vanished. No attendance, no assignments or projects to evaluate, no grades. Why do they leave? Answer that question and our retention issues are solved. We have had little success getting these learners to tell us why they have left (can't find them in many cases), so their reasons for leaving are not clearly known. We can guess, but that's hardly accurate or useful.

So what can be done to help retain the learners that come through our doors in September having made a decision to be a College student? Here are some things that I think might work:
  • Engage prospective learners early - get them in high school or very early in their admissions process
  • Explain the reality of their programmes to them - workload, time committments, employment realities - get industry involved here too - expalin the realities of the work place
  • Assign current learners as mentors. Look at assigning faculty or staff advisors
  • Explore the option of pre-admissions testing - aptitude batteries etc. Not as a go/no go barrier, but as more information for prospective learners to decide if a programme is right for them
  • Make Test Drives and Jump Starts compulsory components of the admissions/acceptance process wherever possible (develop virtual Test Drive and Jump Start sessions for distance and international learners)
  • Do orientation before classes start - many institutions conduct orientaion "boot camps" for a week in August before classes begin. Again a virtual version would be needed for those learners who could not take a week to attend. Orientation would include all of the college/campus/programme "stuff" that are a necessary evil of post-secondary education - save class time for classes.
  • Create flexible learning environments that meet the needs of learners - this may be the one best thing that can be done - we do a lot of this now, but need to be better - multiple entry and exit points, flexible deliveries etc.
  • Post-admissions testing - see where learners are, what they are missing and offer them alternatives that will allow them to stay at the College
  • College 101 - a credit course that will fill in the gaps - numeracy, literacy, study skills, time management - those topics that many learners tell us are factors of their failure. Has to be a credit course or learners will not take it.
  • Regular contact with learners throughout the semester - I would suggest at least four manadatory meetings with an advisor - issue is one of time and resources - faculty and staff are very busy now - adding this to their worklod may not be feasile. Several colleges have created advisement and counselling centres that perform this function
  • Cheerlead - keep lines of communication open with learners - be visible and engage learners in conversations about what they are up to and how they are doing. Engaged learners are in many cases retained learners
These are by no means the only things that can be done to help retention, and I'm not even convinced that they are feasible or would work in all cases. I firmly believe that the key to retention is information - information to prospective learners so they can make informed programme choices, information to current learners so they (and us) can manage their expectations, information to faculty and staff so they can adapt and adopt strategies that will assist learners in staying in their programmes, and information to the college leadership so that informed strategic decisions around retention and enrollment management can be made.

But most importantly remember that ulitimately the decision to stay or leave is that of the learner and that no matter what we do, some will leave...

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