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Total student experience helps to increase student retention

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

To retain students today, career colleges need to look at both cognitive and non-cognitive factors, and create a total student experience that makes students want to learn what they need to obtain a career. In order to enhance total student experience, administrators should consider their student mentoring process, the importance of hiring the right faculty, and other non-cognitive factors.

Cognitively, retention efforts need to begin before students start class. Pre-term, help students understand the complex terms in our industry. What’s a dean? What’s a provost? What’s FAFSA? We take it for granted that they understand our educational jargon, and they don’t. When they hear the word dean, they don’t know what it is or what a dean does.

Academic mentoring should occur at least every term. When students go into term one, we should help students to become career strategists, not just planners. Career Services must become involved early in the process. Students in the career college sector often wait until the end of their education before they meet anybody in Career Services. Early on, students want to know about their employment options and reassurance that there is the possibility of a career. I suggest career colleges think about a total student experience. Advising (mentoring) must be purposeful, strategic and thoughtful. It’s just not how are you doing today, enjoy some pizza, and here is your class schedule for next quarter. It should be a planned advising session. It’s really mentoring where an adviser reminds students why they came to school and then gives them things to think about in terms of educational and employment opportunities.

In term two and three, you need to help students develop transferable skills. Give students information to help them navigate the education system and to understand that much of what they’re learning can lead them down many different career paths. So if they are going to school for Criminal Justice, help them discover what they can do with that degree. Where can they go? What are their possibilities? They need to be aware of the options so they are reminded that they are doing the right thing by going to school. They need to realize that their education can take them to several different places throughout their lifetime. That’s the idea of advising, the idea of talking to them about transferrable skills.

Let students know more about their educational options and opportunities. I’m a living example of someone who didn’t know about educational pathways. My dad was a mechanic and a great guy. He didn’t graduate from high school, but he was a good, blue-collar-working man. I remember coming home and saying, “Dad, I want to go to the University of Utah.” And he said, “Why do you want to do that, son?” He wanted me to go work in the shop and not go to school; that’s the same reality for many of our students in the career college sector. Without a solid mentoring relationship, there is little trust, and students don’t know who to trust, or even know what questions to ask. It is a mistake to assume that students know their options for removing barriers to student success. In term 4 four, advising should help students develop contingency plans for changes. Lastly, in term five, advising should impress upon students the need to set realistic personal, academic and career goals. Despite the importance of advising, many schools don’t do it well. It takes discipline to do it day in and day out and not forget how important it is.

We sometimes have trouble recognizing that our ultimate goal is to help our graduates change their lives and obtain a career. We often define student success by if they graduated. Student success is not having the students graduate; it is that they gained the knowledge they need to get the job they want. Schools that have the right definition of student success are the ones that do well in student retention.

Assuming your school has established an excellent mentoring process, perhaps, the most important technique for improving retention is to hire great faculty. Classroom instructors are a key element in the student retention process. From my dissertation on blended learning, I surveyed nearly 1,000 students and found that if a faculty member was engaged and provided prompt, quality feedback, the learning experience was good in any environment, whether that be online, ground or a blended environment. That taught me the value of having engaged faculty. I was trying to prove my hypothesis that a blended environment would be a superior learning experience. I learned, however, that students didn’t care about the environment as long as the faculty member was there, engaged, prompt and provided quality feedback.

A few years ago, I did research on the best retaining faculty in the career college sector. Based on an assessment instrument from Profiles International (389 faculty members from five career schools), I found three statistically significant attributes: attitude, social skills/intelligence and natural orientation to people service. Attitude means the degree one is willing to demonstrate trust toward others. It relates to the tendency to maintain a positive view about people and outcomes. Social intelligence or skills include things like being conversational, people oriented and comfortable working in a group setting. People service refers to if you are interested in activities such as helping people and promoting the welfare of others. Were any of these findings new or earth shattering? No, but they do make sense. If you spend time making sure you hire faculty who have some of those attributes you can change your culture and improve retention.

It isn’t easy to hire the right people, especially when you need someone to teach a class the following week. The key is to schedule students at least two or three terms out, so that you can be more proactive in the hiring process. In addition to hiring faculty who have at least two out of the three attributes, you might consider asking the right questions during the interview process. For example:

  • What examples can you cite that prove your students have learned under your guidance?

  • How would you react if 20 percent of your students failed an assignment?

  • Why should I care about your subject? Tell how you would sell a lesson and yourself.

  • Tell me how you create a lesson plan. (That gives a sense of how the candidate thinks.)

  • All of our students will graduate. How are you going to ensure that it happens?

Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of the best-selling book, “Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships,” suggests it is difficult or nearly impossible to train social intelligence. People either are or aren’t wired to do those things. But if you have a decent attitude, and if you are people service oriented and willing to naturally engage, students are more likely to be retained because the experience is more pleasant for them. Those schools have leaders who believe in hiring good faculty and who pay attention to career placement and the total student experience will improve retention.

In order to effectively mentor and teach, take the time to learn more about your students. Traditionally, schools take things like GPA and ACT or SAT scores to make decisions as to whether or not to enroll a student. But a student’s GPA and test scores are not always predictors of success. In fact, research is clear that non-cognitive factors can actually improve student success — including academic performance and persistence — somewhere between 7-15 percent.

Research by Dr. Paul Gore, an Associate Professor in Educational Psychology at the University of Utah, shows there are six statistically significant factors you need to pay attention to if you’re trying to create a data-driven student success model:

  • Academic Engagement

  • Academic Self-Efficacy

  • Educational Commitment

  • Resiliency

  • Social Comfort

  • Campus Engagement

Under Gore’s model, you can inform advisors and faculty of areas where a new student may need help, particularly in the first year of school. For example, if an assessment shows the student is low in academic self-efficacy, then faculty members and an academic adviser can work with that student to get him or her to believe they can succeed in college. Mentors need data-driven information to more effectively advise. There are assessments, such as the Student Strengths Inventory, that will help you determine student weaknesses. Many non-cognitive variables can be supported, developed and remediated, which is important since non-cognitive factors are important components of both college and career success.

How does that apply to what we do as career colleges? I believe a lot of our students enter through the door whipped; they don’t think they can succeed. They may have gone through a divorce and the only reason they’re coming to see us is because they’ve got to do something to be able to provide money to pay for the kids. But if we can mentor those students and get them to believe in themselves, we can improve retention.

However, mentoring must be more than just a pep talk. You must mentor on a career theme. In other words, you must keep the career vision alive. A study a long time ago showed that 96 percent of students really don’t want to come to school. But they come because they have to for whatever reason. They want to improve, they want a promotion, or they want a career in the field. By mentoring, you form a connection and a relationship, and the relationship equals trust and trust equals retention.

The whole idea of mentoring is to keep the vision alive of why they came to school in the first place. Sometimes students get stuck in general education courses and they can’t connect with the value of the course. For example, humanities courses can cause a student to disconnect. A good mentor and instructor will link and connect the course back to why and how the course can help students to gain employability skills. Mentors can advise students that employers look for employees who can communicate team, and who can solve problems. One of the things the humanities course does is expose you to different cultures and different points of view. The key is to explain why a humanities class is relevant to their future career goals.

Many four-year colleges are already doing some of this non-cognitive work as part of their students’ first-year experience. There are a number of initiatives almost everywhere in traditional higher education to make sure that students stick in the first year. But you can use this on the career college side, too, and it has real promise to helping to improve student success.

Retention is an effect; it is not a cause. The causes of poor retention are often linked to what is going on in the classroom and the school. To improve retention, administrators should consider, faculty, mentoring on career themes, and the look, sound, and feel of their classrooms. Today’s student wants dynamic learning resources to simulate the workplace. Frankly, the workplace combines touch with technology. So, what would happen if we provide a simulated workplace? A teacher standing in front of a podium is boring and typically not engaging. It has to be much more than that to be successful with your retention improvement initiatives.

In summary, if career colleges want to improve student retention, they need to hire faculty who are naturally wired to socially engage, to promote service to people, and to have a good attitude. Remember, it is difficult to train social intelligence and attitude. Secondly, you should provide academic advising (mentoring) centered on career themes, and an assessment that describes select student non-cognitive factors. The assessment is a tool to help your mentors be more effective. Finally, consider the look, sound, and feel of your classrooms. Simulating the workplace is one way to keep the job vision alive.


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