Future of Education

Student Retention in Higher Education: What It Is and Key Strategies

There are many things to consider when planning curriculum, assessments, and teaching and learning culture.

We’ve discussed the importance of online course design, just-in-time learning, flipped learning, and more. Today, we will be exploring the importance of student retention, particularly in higher education.

What is student retention?

Student retention is a commonly used phrase in the education sector, but what does it mean, exactly?

Student retention is a way to measure how many students complete their curriculum and graduate. It indicates how well a school ensures students' academic success or completion.

Grade retention is sometimes confused with student retention, but the two are not the same. The former refers to students repeating a grade, while the latter refers to the process of ensuring student success and graduation. 

Why is student retention important in higher education?

While student retention is important in all stages of education, it is especially important in higher education because failure to complete university can often reflect poorly on students and educational bodies.

Despite education and technology being as advanced as it is today, many students still drop out of higher education.

Causes of the problem

There are many possible reasons why students choose to drop out, and they can be grouped into three main categories:

School strategy

Of course, school strategy plays a major role in student retention. Not only must it interest students, but it must also be what they expected (or exceed their expectations), informative, engaging, and sustainable.

When school strategy — whether it is the curriculum, teaching style, assessment, or other — does not align with the learner, there will be a disconnect and they will be more likely to not complete the full course.

Personal issues

Sometimes, the reason for low student retention is not due to the school, but due to personal issues that learners may face. This can be choosing the wrong course, family pressure, or not being able to focus.


Universities try to widen participation as they want more people to benefit from higher education. While this can be a good thing as it exposes more people to higher education, it may forget to address some student concerns.

Students from poorer backgrounds without experience in higher education may find it difficult to cope with university requirements, equipment, and self-learning. This can lead to lagging behind and low self-esteem, while large classes can make students feel isolated.

Student retention theory

Vincent Tinto, an American educational researcher, is one of the leading theorists on retention. 

He developed the "interactionalist theory" which believed that students were more likely to complete their course when their academic goals and motivation are aligned with the academic and social characteristics of the school. 

According to Tinto, these are the five conditions that promote student retention best:

  1. Expect more from students 
  2. Help students understand institutional requirements and academic choices 
  3. Provide support (academic, social, personal) 
  4. Show appreciation to students 
  5. Promote active involvement in learning

Tinto says the classroom is "the crossroads where the social and academic meet", highlighting the importance of collaborative learning.

If you’d like a detailed action plan for increasing student retention, here’s how.

Key strategies to improve student retention

Identify at-risk students early

Monitoring student progress, attendance, and performance can help you identify at-risk students.

If this seems impossible in a larger class setting, consider using AI technology to monitor students in order to be informed when students show early warning signs.

Intervene early

Early intervention is one of the most effective ways to improve student retention as prevention is better than cure.

If a student seems unsure, is losing focus, or struggling in class, it’s important to step in and assist them. Whether they need emotional support, guidance, or extra tutoring, reaching out to them at this stage can help to steer them in the right direction.


Create a student-centred culture

By building your teaching, curriculum, and activities around your students, you will be able to cater to their needs better.

This will not only assist them in learning but also boost morale and increase interest in the course.

Update the teaching and learning styles

Active, independent learning creates a more hands-on approach that forces students to be present and engage in classes.

You can use different learning formats such as videos, live lectures, group discussions, and personalised AI tutoring to keep them intellectually stimulated and on their toes.

Also consider: universal design for learning to breach the learning gap for all students and flipped classrooms to let students learn at their own pace, come into the class prepared, and start discussions.

Relook the way you assess students

In a recent article, we shared key issues with school assessments and how we can improve it.

Assessments are a useful way to track student progress to benchmark against learning goals and outcomes, but the way you go about it is key.

When there is extreme pressure and a single-minded focus on grades and scoring well, students may become fixated with their scores and discouraged when they get low marks.

Instead of focusing purely on assessments that we’re all used to, you can focus on providing thorough preparation, advocating a positive attitude, varying assessments, and providing assessments that are real-world, problem-based, and well-timed.

The takeaway

Student retention is essential as it marks course completion and student graduation. Higher education institutions can improve their learning environment to improve student retention and continuously improve the learning environment. 

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