Colleges and universities across the country are seeing a shift in their institutional priorities concerning student success and retention. For years, the primary focus was moving more and more students through their doors, leaving the responsibilities of academic success to various departments and individual faculty members. As the population of high school students dwindles and competition for those students increases, institutions are becoming more conscientious about why students leave before graduation and are working to improve retention and completion rates.
Taking a more conscientious approach stands to most benefit small liberal arts colleges like Thomas More College. Enrollment and revenue growth are essential to the successful operation and sustainability of these institutions. It is paramount that they work diligently to serve and meet the needs of the students walking through their doors, especially given the fact that it costs less to retain an enrolled student than to recruit a prospective one. Therefore, retention efforts must become ingrained into the culture of all faculty and staff.
So how does a small liberal arts college work to build a culture of student success and retention throughout its campus community?
First, establishing this culture starts with senior leadership and must be communicated to all campus employees. The success of these institutions is tied to the students’ success, so decisions must put student needs first. By prioritizing and communicating a student-first mantra, an environment is created where students feel a sense of belonging within the institution, which is key to their successful retention.
Second, carefully crafted resources designed to address the issues students face must be available. It is important to utilize the mountains of data collected to appropriately guide decision-making with regard to retention strategies and the allocation of limited resources. The use of good data allows institutions to clearly define and identify “at-risk” students, analyze patterns and variables related to student success and retention, and target initiatives or strategies that confidently move all students towards retention and completion goals.
Third, early detection and intervention must coincide with a partnership effort among campus departments and staff to provide targeted and intrusive support aligned with appropriate resources. By detecting issues early, institutions can help students navigate challenges before they become too difficult to handle. Campus-wide collaboration is a crucial component in creating pathways to student success. Success and retention efforts do not happen in a single office, they exist through a web of resources available from a multitude of offices that support and engage students during their college experience. Institutions must create these networks of collaboration among departments, breaking down the silos of information that exist to create stronger intervention plans in support of student success. The result is a culture of retention that permeates throughout the campus.
Finally, at the heart of the matter, is providing exemplary customer service in every interaction with students. Institutions need to operate from the general principle that everything affects retention. Students constantly evaluate and re-evaluate their college or university to determine whether they have made the right choice. Institutions must strive with every interaction to engage the student and reinforce their sense of belonging. As more and more students flood the gates of small liberal arts colleges like TMC, it is important to remember the reasons the students chose to enroll in the first place—individualized attention, personalized touch, and a strong sense of community.
As a grateful alumnus of TMC, I am proud of the culture of student success and retention that has been built. Top leadership, everyone from our Chancellor, the Most Reverend Bishop Roger J. Foys, D.D., to the Board of Trustees, to President Armstrong and his cabinet members, believe in the College’s mission and strive to place the success of our students at the forefront of their decisions. This is evident in the recent formation of the Thomas More College Success Center and the newly unveiled Robinson Family Academic Mentoring Center. Faculty and staff work tirelessly to identify and meet the needs of our students in order to align them with appropriate, carefully crafted resources that enhance their TMC experience. Retention at Thomas More College is no easy task, but through our extraordinary people, I witness daily the exemplary customer service that not only has the power to create a culture of student success and retention, but also encourage them to find their way with confidence in the world after graduation.