Five steps from recruitment to retention

Universities around the world are working harder than ever to attract and retain students, says Nicola Yeeles

For every 10 students who started at a UK university in 2012, nine of them completed their degree at the same university, according to the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Over the pond in the USA, just six of 10 students in the 2007 cohort graduated. It seems UK universities are enjoying considerable success with student retention.

Nevertheless, there’s wide variation between institutions, from a drop-out rate of around 2% at Oxford and Cambridge, to over 20% at the bottom of the table. But the picture masks the variables: often, those universities with higher drop-out rates are those that are doing the most to widen participation and attract atypical learners. It’s the same in the States: for 2007 cohorts at institutions which accepted less than 25% of applicants, the graduation rate was an impressive 89%. It seems the fussier you are, the more likely your students are to stay the course. But it’s not all about raising the bar to entry. Universities around the world are working harder than ever to attract and retain students, as our five steps show.

1 Getting the brand right
Students choosing universities to apply to have had a dazzling array of choice since the 1992 act which transformed the HE market. Defining the ‘u’ for unique in your USP can be difficult – and it’s not all down to your marketing team. Strategic director of brand agency Bond and Coyne Mike Bond says: “How distinctive a university brand becomes is dependent on which aspects competitors decide to highlight. If, during the same year, all competitors decide to focus on the international career trajectories of their graduates – as a number have done this year – what could once have been seen as a strong, distinctive selling point is easily glossed over as standard.”

But there is a way round this issue. Bond suggests being innovative: “It is important to remember that the uniqueness can come in the ‘how’ just as easily as the ‘what’. In other words, the way in which a university communicates – not just in what it says. In a saturated market like HE, the opportunity is there to carve out a distinctive brand through the methods and formats a brand uses to talk to its audience.” One example is in doing something different with your prospectus, or finding new ways to communicate with prospective applicants via social media.

‘How distinctive a university brand becomes is dependent on which aspects competitors decide to highlight’ 

2 Communicating the spirit of the place
Heart is as important as head for many applicants, who may be influenced as much by their perception of an institution as facts and figures. A 2001 Canadian study by Nguyen showed that among nearly 400 business school students, loyalty was greatest when they also felt their school had a favourable reputation and image. If there’s a good match between the university and the student then that will lead to a developing relationship between the two.

Honesty is therefore crucial. Bond says, “Our belief is that demonstrating the character of an institute […] is one of the most essential requirements for university brand communication to encapsulate – communicating the spirit of a place so that prospective students can judge whether it is the right choice for them.” 

3 Identify students with the soft skills to succeed
The University of Edinburgh is a popular destination for many international students; in 2014/15 it welcomed more than 14,660 of them. But it also has exceptional retention rates for those students: 97% of international students enrolled on full-time postgraduate and undergraduate courses stayed the course. University of Edinburgh spokesperson Andrew Moffat explains that it’s the rigorous application process that helps the University to identify those students who “demonstrate the academic ability, resilience and commitment” to succeed at Edinburgh.

At Glasgow University the director of recruitment and international, Rachel Sandison, agrees on the importance of a robust application system. Although Glasgow has competitive entry requirements, there’s also a commitment to bringing in students from varied backgrounds. She says: “We therefore also review contextual data when making decisions on applications and provide a range of on-campus support for students both pre-university and during their time at Glasgow.” 

4 Manage student expectations before they start
Student expectation is key. A survey of young first year undergraduates at Northumbria University found that students were significantly more likely to withdraw from their courses if they had underestimated the academic demands, or if they had overestimated the amount of academic support they would receive or had mistaken expectations about the academic staff or their teaching methods.

Conversely, the survey found that accurate expectations led to more student satisfaction and less consideration of leaving the course. For example, those who accurately estimated the academic demands of university life were significantly more likely to judge that the academic demands of their course were ‘about right’ (82%) than students who underestimated them (64%). Taster days, school outreach projects, buddy systems and online social networks can all help to give students an accurate picture of life at university before day one.

‘We are identifying potential pitfalls; we work with our students to ensure progression from term to term and year to year’  

5 Reach out to students during their course
According to the latest HESA stats, students are more likely to drop out than transfer to another university. That may be due to difficulties in their home life, financial issues or academic problems. The survey at Northumbria University found that more students living at home considered withdrawal or transfer (56%) than students in halls (19%). Such hard-to-reach students need proactive measures to help them feel the benefit of the many student support services available to them.

Speaking earlier, David Hudson, Teesside University’s deputy director of external relations, described the University’s threefold approach to assisting students. He said: “We understand what particular barriers our students have. We have course reps and retention officers in each of the academic schools offering support. We are identifying potential pitfalls; we work with our students to ensure progression from term to term and year to year.”

The same principle can be applied to international students. At Oregon State University in the US, the number of international students more than doubled in the four years up to 2012. In order to improve its retention rates, the University developed a comprehensive website of resources for them, including information on the tax system, buying a car, and cultural challenges.
The University also runs workshops and events to help international students settle in, and a cross-cultural competency series for staff and students to ensure cultural sensitivity.
Walk-in sessions run in tandem to appointments for student services and the international office proactively reaches out to students to inform them of relevant deadlines and responsibilities.

The message is simple: an informed student is a happy student. Accurate, well-presented information about student life helps potential learners make the best choice about where they will fit. They begin to form judgements about what their course will be like, and the accuracy of those predictions allows them to settle in quickly. Once at university, contact with tutors and support staff either face-to-face or digitally can help to nip any problems in the bud before they occur. Retention certainly starts with recruitment, but it doesn’t end until graduation day. 


#Case study:

Creating a buzz online to increase recruitment

The challenge:
How could Arts University Bournemouth (AUB) increase its presence in social media and strengthen their brand? Mike Bond says: “We saw an opportunity to create an interactive experience that would achieve this and could go on to be used as the basis of marketing campaigns and events throughout the year.”

The solution:
The team at Bond and Coyne designed and built a kaleidoscope app called Kscope for AUB. Kscope allows users to download the app for free, and then capture their own personal view of the world, before sharing their creation in one of eight online galleries hosted by the University or on Facebook and Twitter. 

Within 24 hours of launch, Kscope images and films were uploaded from the UK and Europe and as far afield as China, the USA, Australia and the Philippines. Apple featured Kscope as one of their top three new apps and there were 21,000 downloads within its first week. 

Was it a success?
Arts University Bournemouth applications are up 8.5% for 2015 compared with the sector average of 2.3%. They have seen year-on-year growth in applications leading to an overall increase of nearly a third over three years.

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