As many of us will know, in recent years, there has been a fundamental shift in the average school-leaver mind-set. These learners are now more digitally savvy than ever before; not only are they extremely involved with social media hungry for peer reviews, but are more commercially aware of where they should place the investment of their time to get the best value-for-time education. A trend seems to be forming with this empowerment that is causing the decision on which institution to attend being made later in the cycle, beyond enrolment, causing early retention to be one of the biggest challenges this coming academic year.
At all of the further education (FE) institutions I work with, early engagement with fresh students can be one of the major challenges. These institutions might have a strong number of prospective students signed up at the beginning of term fighting against a more competitive landscape and shrinking demographic, but keeping them till day 43 is tricky. To stand a better chance of retaining students in these first 42 days, FE institutions need to build relationships with them – and fast, allocating limited support services to at-risk students in need.
For years, students have made multiple applications to multiple colleges. But from our extensive research, last year we started to see not just multiple applications but multiple enrolments. This September, we expect to see this trend rise and bring even more early drop-outs as students decide whether they want to stay at an institution after enrolment.
So, what can FE institutions do? Some good mechanisms for supporting students include personal tutoring, meetings with academics and student union gatherings. Colleges can also get more involved with students by organising welcome weeks and summer schools. These are just a few of the methods that institutions are using to ensure that students' expectations are aligned with their offering. Too often we see the goodie goodies turning up and those that feel most isolated or with greatest support need disconnected from these services. But are they enough to capture those that are in greatest need? And assuming that learners may well be at multiple institutions, is it differentiating the experience at your institute?
Imagine if FE institutions could predict whether a student is going to attend enrolment or not; and indeed dropout in the first 42 days with 87% accuracy before they ever arrive. It is now possible to have that knowledge in advance as proved with my work with Brockenhurst College in particular. Having this information is like looking into a crystal ball, so that they can change the way in which they organise student support and therefore increase early retention and set up the learner for a successful year. Understanding learning styles before learners ever arrive on campus to allocate the best teaching team, support package and sympathetic timetable, gives everyone the best start from their very first day. Even understanding the friendship circles that students are in before they arrive ensures tutor groups are in the best shape to be a warm and welcoming place for all with some of their friends already there. With this innovation Brockenhurst are expecting to increase their student numbers by 15%, increase retention by 15% and their reputation by 30%.
Other colleges have been using predictive analysis to help with early retention in students – and like Brockenhurst are already getting up to 90% accuracy on which learners are likely not to convert their applicant and enrol. Any students who are on the fence are given a personalised service and invited back for a second welcome meeting or interview to create a new touch point in the recruitment cycle to boost conversion. This helps the institution keep them close, to build a relationship and to get an idea of what could help them become closer to the institution. This way, the institution can allocate resources to watch those students carefully and ensure they have all the resources they need to succeed during this critical period.
These best in class examples show that technology can certainly help in this area. In my view, this challenge of early retention needs to be a bigger focus for all institutions moving forwards. Those that recognise this shift in school leaver mindset and act with a sense of urgency are setting up to see some great results against the odds.