How Colleges Can Use Technology to Improve Student Retention: Student Life Cycle Series


This post is the second in a blog series about the Student Life Cycle outlining why colleges should be adopting technology to better manage the entire student life cycle process; from applying and accepting to attending; to graduating to alumni giving and continuing education; and finally for some, to attend graduate school.

If you are a freshman starting at Columbia University, University of Chicago or Yale University this fall, based on past data, there is about a 99% chance that you will return to school for your sophomore year. Meanwhile at some schools, almost half of the freshmen never return for their sophomore year. College retention rates vary widely depending on a number of factors, but there are many steps colleges can take to improve their retention rates.

College students drop out for a variety of reasons: academics, transfer to another school, financial constraints, bored with school, societal, homesick, work requirements, too much stress or they just don’t like the experience. Actively recruiting college students that are a good fit for a school is part of the battle, but nationally only about half of students who enroll in 4-year colleges graduate within 4 years, though that number increases to close to 60% of students within 6 years. Two year schools have even less graduates. Colleges are very concerned about this trend and are implementing steps to combat college dropouts. Here are a few examples of how colleges are using technology to keep students in school.

Predictive Analytics

Colleges know that students that do poorly in classes are less likely to graduate, but is a student’s performance in certain classes more indicative of a potential dropout risk? Just like in the movie Moneyball, Georgia State used predictive analytics to uncover that nursing students were less likely to graduate if they did poorly in the Introductory Math class rather than any of the other nursing classes. “You could get a C or an A in that first nursing class and still be successful,” said Timothy M. Renick, the vice provost at Georgia State. “But if you got a low grade in your math courses, by the time you were in your junior and senior years, you were doing very poorly.” For students who achieved a B+ or better in Introductory Math, 80% graduated; meanwhile, only 10% of the students who achieved a C or lower in the math class graduated.

Academic Advising

Flush with all the predictive data, Georgia State needed academic advisors to counsel the students, especially with grades that are big red flags for possibly dropping out. Georgia State doubled its advising staff to 100, dropping its ratio from 750 students per advisor to about 300. This led to an increase in its four-year graduation rate by 5 percentage points, to 27%, and its six-year graduation rate rose 6 percentage points, to 54%. Schools, armed with a student’s class schedule, can proactively send advising appointment invitations to students to come in to quickly address any issues.

Course Selection

To prevent transfers, Stanford and Michigan are experimenting with course selection tools that help students choose the best classes based on their goals. The initial results have been positive, with Stanford reporting that students who used the tool have received an average grade of B+ as opposed to an average grade of B for students that did not use the tool. Some schools use course selection analytics to ensure that students don’t choose the wrong class (e.g., a non-major taking a class designed for majors or vice-versa).


Decades ago, schools didn’t focus much effort on college retention, feeling that college was “survival of fittest” and this made their schools more difficult to graduate from and therefore more prestigious. This thinking has been reversed, and colleges are finding that it takes a coordinated, interdepartmental effort to improve retention rates and minimize churn. Schools focused on improving college retention can implement these initiatives, using both technology and personal guidance, to help students overcome their challenges and graduate from college.

In our next post in the blog series about the Student Life Cycle, we will look at why colleges and universities should be using technology to improve alumni satisfaction (and increase donations).


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