STUDENT RETENTION: A TOTAL SYSTEM FOR EMPLOYEES AND STUDENTS THAT WORKS
Written By Dr. Joe Pace, Chairman of the Board, Global Education
The Pacific Institute
Facing the reality of retention
When I began working on my doctoral dissertation dealing with student retention, I thought dropout rates would fall if students took a course in success. I learned that faculty and staff involvement was a bigger factor in keeping students in school. If employees are not aboard or involved in retention of students, you do not get the results you are looking for. Most students drop out in the first 30 to 90 days, so most schools offer a success course during this period. I thought that was going to be it. I thought you just needed a really good one that taught them how to deal with their issues and problems, and that if you taught them how to become a better student, they would just persist. What I found is that if the rest of the employees in the organization are not aligned, and are not paying enough attention to the students, it just unravels any good work that’s done in a student success class. When you are looking at the whole scheme of retention, persistence and school dropout, the big revelation to me was that it’s not just a course that’s taught in the first 90 days. It is total employee commitment and involvement that makes the difference. All employees need to be models, mentors, and monitors.
An intelligent heart
Employees who are student-orientated and have positive expectations of students make a big difference in a school’s retention rate. Teachers get much of the blame for retention problems, and that’s because the employees the students have the most exposure to are teachers.
Teachers need an intelligent heart: knowledge about their subject and the heart to know how to reach students. The same is true about other departments. Most employees just want to focus on their job every day and not really be concerned about being a student oriented or a customer-oriented organization. It’s that challenge that goes on between being an educational institution and a business.
Becoming an “edupreneur”
I advocate becoming an “edupreneur”-half educator, half entrepreneur-in order to understand both the business and educational sides of the school.
Sometimes the administrative side does not understand or appreciate the educator side, so I created the ‘edupreneurial spirit’. Along with getting all employees to embrace the intelligent heart, we also get them to embrace what we call the “Edupreneurial Spirit” to better understand that it’s also a business. We get them to understand enough so they don’t undermine each other as an organization or as departments within a school.
It’s really a cognitive skill. We’re teaching this information so faculty and staff can lock on to it, just the way an IT instructor would lock on to IT skills. It’s telling them about some of the challenges the students may be having in their personal lives. When they hear that, they begin to understand that maybe they should take a look at this other side. It’s not just the I.Q. side. It’s also the intelligent heart side.
Attention equals retention
My research has shown that paying exceptional attention to students over a period of time will result in improved retention. It’s like attention equals retention. You could spend three months just taking 30 students and every day asking them how they’re doing, smiling at them, paying extraordinary attention to them. Over the three-month period, you will see major improvement in retention. The effect multiplies when faculty and staff team up with the method. There’s sort of a law of synergy or a law of physics that comes into effect. If I can get 10 out of 20 employees to say, ‘You know, this really makes a lot of sense,’ it’s absolutely amazing how you begin to see it reflected in student retention rates improving.
Many times a student has never experienced success, and lacks the vision or experience to succeed. I counter this by training teachers and staff members to help students dig deep down to find a picture or vision that motivates them.
One of the things we found in persistence is that people who persist have a vision in their minds, they have a picture that’s very sensory rich. They can touch it, taste it. Then you save one student here, one there, and before you know it, over the course of a year, your retention has improved 10 percent.
Some students drop out because their vision isn’t strong enough to take them through the rough spots.
A student is usually looking for a lifestyle change, and has a picture in his or her mind of a better life. They have a picture in their mind, so the more the employees know about the vision or picture, the more they can reinforce it.
Show rates improving
I have been experimenting with improving show rates in admissions as well as retention rates, to help students from the time of their initial interview to their first class. We especially focus on getting them to keep the vision alive. There’s always a period before they come, sort of a holding pattern. Usually a school representative calls and talks about how great the school is, its benefits and features. We’re trying something new. We’re talking about the vision and the lifestyle change. We ask how it’s going, what are the rocks in road, the obstacles? In some schools I have seen the show rate improve between 5 and 8 percent. We’re using these same concepts that I originally designed for retention.
To help students with their vision, some schools take a picture of students in cap and gown on the first day of school. The pictures can be posted on a bulletin board or given to students to put on their notebooks. Others make tapestry with everyone’s name on it, or T-shirts with names on the back. The activity helps students create a new social group built around a common goal and success. The Pacific Institute helps schools use and apply research and ideas such as the cap and gown photo.
We take research that has been around for 50 or 60 years that is very cognitive in nature and make it user-friendly. We’re in close to 600 colleges and schools, so we get great ideas from schools and bring them to other schools. Ideas like the cap and gown bulletin board aren’t new, but it’s important for them to be shared so each school can apply them in their own way. The technique is to apply this information in user- friendly scenarios to get the end results. You want something similar to the picture on the first day of school in a cap and gown, or maybe there are other great ideas.
One way of getting employees to develop an intelligent heart is to have them carry out these projects and ideas. We create implementation teams to come up with these ideas and they take that on as a challenge. They take on that accountability, and have it done for the next start. That fosters more of an intelligent heart within them through activities and ideas that they actually manifest through application.
The presidents and administrators set a school’s organizational climate, and I admit this intelligent heart philosophy doesn’t fit with all management styles. It fits if a school is student-oriented, concerned about retention, and thinks the quality indicator of an institution is the number of students who persist and graduate. A secure leader is also important. If the leadership is ‘my way or the highway, shape up or ship out,’ they run into conflict with this type of empowering style. However, this empowering style absolutely improves retention.
Some people might think this stuff is touchy-feely, but it’s not. Research shows that in order to foster change of any type, to get synapses in the brain, an electrical chemical process in the brain, there must be emotion involved. This emotion is sometimes mistaken as touchy-feely. People do not change unless there is a synapse in the brain that comes from some form of emotion causing motivation. That motivation can be value or it can be threat, but the value works much better and fosters more results than the threat.
The Pacific Institute
Dr. Joe Pace is an internationally recognized performance psychologist, educator, speaker and author. He presents seminars and workshops in the areas of corporate culture alignment, leadership development, student retention, and personal and professional achievement. His background in teaching, psychology, and business aids him in delivering research-based information to a global audience; from corporate executives to faculty and students.