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Student Engagement: The Key to Retention


Student Engagement: The Key to Retention

As Steven C. Howey (2012) pointed out years ago, educators across the US are “frustrated with the challenge of how to motivate the ever increasing number of freshmen students entering college who are psychologically, socially, and academically unprepared for the demands of college life.”

For the past 40-plus years, the standard approach to the problem of student motivation and dropout rates has been to view it as predominantly an academic issue that remedial instruction or tutoring can fix. Many of us believed that some students came equipped with enough stamina and intrinsic motivation and that providing the right support systems and external stimuli would help motivate those who lacked the intrinsic drivers. Faculty and instructors often did not see that they had an important role to play in this, and they did not think too much about personalizing or tailoring the learning experience to the individual. Instead, for a variety of reasons they were eager to “uphold rigorous standards” and find the path of least resistance (and less workload) for themselves. Students were perceived as either smart and eager or as entitled and reluctant to put in the work required of them. Yet, since we opened the gates to higher education much wider and colleges have become increasingly diverse, more inclusive, and less elitist, the most important consideration is early identification of and attention to at-risk students. It is well documented that addressing retention issues early in the student’s first year of college is critical. Historically, at least half of all students who drop out of college do so during their first year (Noel, 1985). 

From an idealistic standpoint, we want all our students to succeed and gain valuable skills and life experience in the four to six years the majority of students needs to get a college degree nowadays (NCES, n.d.). But for universities there is more at stake: there is a business side, and although the term is much frowned upon, students are also “customers” who bring in the money that makes the educational organization run, grow, and stay competitive. This happens on several fronts: universities charge tuitions and fees, and when a student drops out, this stream of revenue disappears. Of course, people might think that there will always be more students in the pipeline. Yet it is costly to recruit and thus always better to have students stick around until they finish their degrees. Low retention or graduation rates bring further disadvantages: if the institution is a public school, state subsidies are partly based on successful retention and graduation rates. Losing enrollment means losing out on tuition as well as on so-called formula funding. At the same time, retention and graduation figures also inform marketing and advertising strategies: a discriminating buyer does not want to attend an institution that has a lousy graduation rate, because no matter its cause, the possibility of not being able to finish a degree successfully within a reasonable amount of time will deter prospective students and their parents and influence application and subsequent enrollment rates.

Key issues

To tackle the problem of increasing dropout rates and lack of student motivation—especially in light of the COVID-pandemic and all it entails for predominantly face-to-face or residential institutions—we are more pressed than ever to come up with strategies to analyze student disengagement and extract underlying factors to grow our retention and success rates. To achieve this, institutional leaders need to realize for themselves what really drives the educational market, and then be open and transparent and relay to faculty and staff what they expect from them and how a change in behavior will affect the bottom line.

An open and well-communicated strategic plan will provide educational institutions with greater staff and faculty productivity, resulting in overall effectiveness. This cannot be solely a top-down endeavor; to be successful, everyone within the organization must be involved, gain insight into their responsibilities and duties, and understand how they fit into the overall picture (Clayton, 2019). Anthony Taylor (2020) points out that there are a number of questions we need to ask before starting the actual planning process:

  • How did we get to where we are now?
  • Where do we want to go? What is our vision of success?
  • What do we need to do to get there?
  • What could get in the way? What do we need to be aware of?

When we reflect on the past two decades, we can see tremendous changes in higher education. Tuition rates have risen dramatically, the public is demanding greater accountability, students are suffering from increased levels of anxiety, administrators are working under tighter budget constraints, and employers are looking for graduates with greater proficiency in soft skills. Universities have often responded to these challenges by providing an attractive campus that had a lot of “fun” and student services built in, thinking that doing so would motivate and entice students to immerse themselves into their studies. They’ve invested in fitness centers with climbing walls and lazy rivers, gaming labs and maker spaces, relaxation pods and flotation tanks, more varied food offerings in dorms and cafeterias, unlimited wireless accessibility, and increased access to counseling services—whatever it might take to look good in the eyes of prospective students, and whatever colleges have seen their competitors do. But in the grander scheme of things, all these amenities have not helped much in the area of motivation and retention.


What it really comes down to is the fact that professors and instructors need to be so much more than subject matter experts; they need to radiate a sense of personal involvement and a caring attitude to provide their students with a sense of belonging. To achieve this, they need to be trained holistically and continuously to do this effectively and authentically. On average, the typical college student spends 200 hours with instructors each semester; by comparison, that same student sees their advisor for about an hour (EAB, 2016). Faculty have many contact opportunities to help students feel welcome and well taken care of, yet in many instances they see this as extracurricular and not part of their job. When students feel like they belong on a campus, however, they are more likely to stay in school and graduate. Professors are of utmost importance here: they can make or break a college career. Sometimes a casual remark may result in students feeling empowered; other times it may be the last straw that makes a student decide to throw in the towel. Feeling cared about leads to feelings of belonging. In terms of college, sense of belonging refers to students’ perceived social support on campus; a feeling or sensation of connectedness; and the experience of mattering and feeling accepted, respected, and valued by the campus community (Strayhorn, 2019).

Verschelden (2017) offers additional insights into how student motivation and learning bandwidth are negatively affected by economic insecurity, discrimination, stigmatization, and ”belongingness uncertainty”—often experienced by students from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds or those who are first-generation students—and she highly endorses caring and belonging strategies in the classroom that positively influence student success. As higher education professionals, we need to make sure that we not only equip ourselves and our colleagues with tools and strategies that enable us to be excellent and versatile teachers of our subject matters but also learn how to effectively deal with issues of scarcity, diversity and inclusion, mental strain, lack of bandwidth, disruptions, and technological obstacles, because these are the real reasons why many students cannot finish their degrees. The key to student success is, indeed, effective faculty development and personal involvement (Brown & Kurzweil, 2018). To warrant this kind of involvement, it needs to be recognized as essential.

Everybody, and especially chairs, deans, and provosts, needs to fully recognize the connections between increased faculty engagement, instructional quality, student outcomes, and institutional finances. This is done best by providing faculty with incentives for continuous development in all areas of the academic life cycle, by being open and transparent about how outcomes and institutional finances are interdependent, and by rewarding faculty for attempts to cultivate inclusivity and belonging instead of clinging to the old academic model in which research and scholarship—however esoteric—trump everything and good teaching and availability to students is nice but negligible. Increasing expenditures on instructional quality and authentic engagement is money well spent. Funds allotted to highly focused faculty development will result in higher student motivation and increased retention—which, in turn, translates into more tuition revenue and a decrease in recruitment costs. Especially in the light of the current pandemic, students and parents are asking what it is they are actually paying for. As Shawn Hubler (2020) points out, “A rebellion against the high cost of a bachelor’s degree, already brewing around the nation before the coronavirus, has gathered fresh momentum as campuses have strained to operate in the pandemic.” Annoyed at paying high prices for an education that for the time being is administered online, students and their parents are now clamoring for discounts and tuition refunds. What good is a climbing wall when you cannot get to it? In the long run, I predict that in the absence of on-campus experiences and after realizing that online is a valid, convenient, and cheaper option, many students may opt to find the most affordable provider for their degree and disregard pedigree and pretty environs.

To attract and retain students and help them succeed, instructors need to hone their skills both in (online) teaching and in the soft-skill arena to authentically increase their engagement with the growing numbers of first-time-in-college and post-traditional learners. The COVID-19 pandemic has once again brought to the forefront that many professors are not really prepared to teach effectively, that institutions let them get away with it far too long, and that students are becoming ever more discriminating. College administrators will have to switch their mindset and do away with outmoded funding models that favor amenities over effective teaching and mentoring, and they will need to tailor their offerings to satisfy a new clientele.

Universities and colleges, indeed, have to become much more efficient with their resources, which include tangible assets as much as human capital, instead of continuing to increase tuition and fees to invest in equipment, services, and extracurricular activities that are merely incidental to the school’s educational mission In the past, colleges and universities raised tuition and fees to make up for the decrease in government funding and the increase in program expenses (Nelson, 2016), and they believed it would solve the problem. By now we ought to know better. It behooves us all as educators and mentors to hone our skills on a continuous basis to deal with the harsher realities our students face, even without a pandemic. Faculty development that emphasizes caring and paying attention to students and mentees will go a long way to improve retention and success rates and ultimately turn our students into successful graduates and informed citizens who will contribute to the whole of society.


Brown, J., & Kurzweil, M. (2018). Instructional quality, student outcomes, and institutional finances. ACE. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Instructional-Quality-Student-Outcomes-and-Institutional-Finances.pdf

Clayton, J. (2019, Jan. 29). The five stages of the strategic management process. Houston Chronicle. https://smallbusiness.chron.com/five-stages-strategic-management-process-18785.html

EAB. (2016). The evolving role of faculty in student success.

Howey, S. C. (2012, Nov. 20). Factors in student motivation. NACADA. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Motivation.aspx

Hubler, S. (2020. Aug. 15). As colleges move classes online, families rebel against the cost. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/15/us/covid-college-tuition.html

NCES. (n.d.). Fast facts: Time to degree. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=569

Nelson, G. (2016, April 15). Public research universities’ shifting funding models. NPQ. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/public-research-universities-shifting-funding-models

Noel, L. (1985). Increasing student retention: New challenges and potential. In L. Noel, R. Levitz, & Associates (Eds.), Increasing student retention (pp. 1–27). Jossey-Bass.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2019). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge.

Taylor, A. (2020, Jan. 15). What is the strategic planning process? SME Strategy. https://www.smestrategy.net/blog/what-is-the-strategic-planning-process

Verschelden, C. (2017). Bandwidth recovery: Helping students reclaim cognitive resources lost to poverty, racism, and social marginalization. Stylus.

Jörg Waltje, PhD is the executive director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Texas Woman’s University. His interests include effective faculty development and tinkering with new technologies for the continuous improvement of the teaching and learning experience in higher education.

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