The Retention Dilemma with Graduate Programs
When you think about student attrition, is it ever in the context of graduate school?
Probably not, but you should. Undergrad retention rates hover around 50% and the same goes for masters and doctoral students.
Colleges and Universities are more focused on their undergraduate attrition than what is happening in their graduate programs. I had the fortunate circumstance of attending the Annual Meeting for the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools in early March (which, by the way, is a fantastic group of people) where I had conversations with several Deans of graduate programs spread from Maryland to Texas. The conversations were overwhelmingly similar. Each one sharing they would love to have a retention solution similar to what their undegraduate counterpart currently has, but they don't have the student numbers in their grad program to justify the cost.
Let’s pause and think about this for a minute. One particular institution comes to mind that has 20,000 undergrads and 4,000 graduate students. If this institution is experiencing an overall attrition rate of 20% annually for both programs, then they are looking at losing 4000 undergrad and 800 graduate students. Seems to make sense to focus on the larger number, but losing 800 graduate students results in a $7.2m loss in tuition revenue for this particular institution.
Through my discussions, the predominant reasons I am hearing their institutions are not investing in a retention solution are:
- Less Return on Investment when compared to undergrad
- An assumption that students who leave cannot handle the academic rigor, so we should allow for this natural attrition
- An assumption that some students leave because they’ve chosen a different career direction, which usually involves gainful full time employment
Let’s break these down…
Less Return on Investment when compared to undergrad
It's hard to find numbers on loss in tuition revenue for graduate programs. An Educational Policy Institute report shows a loss in tuition revenue for undergrad at $16.5B, so I'm guessing if graduate programs are experiencing a 50% attrition rate the financial loss there is still a staggering number. The institution mentioned above would see an increase in tuition revenue of $0.5M with a 7% increase in retention. An affordable solution would provide very strong return on investment.
An assumption that students who leave cannot handle the academic rigor, so we should allow for this natural attrition
A strong admissions department should be filtering out students who will struggle. Of course, the expectation is rarely 100% retention and certainly a small population of students may struggle academically. Most students admitted to graduate programs can meet and exceed the academic requirements, but life gets in the way. When priorities shift and life intervenes, the performance drops. It’s easy to point the finger at performance, but is that the true reason a student leaves their graduate program? Identify these dips in performance quickly and then engage to uncover the real issue.
An assumption that some students leave because they’ve chosen a different career direction, which usually involves gainful employment
Students who drop of out graduate school are likely pulled away by life situations. Families, health, career, finances, debt and self-confidence are key factors. The latter factor there, self-confidence, is important to pay attention to. In Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, she talks about the high number of people admitted to prestigious academic programs who experience imposter syndrome, which is basically a consistent feeling that they must have fooled the admissions folks to gain acceptance into their program. She experienced the same thing herself as a grad student at Princeton, now she’s a best-selling author doing ground-breaking research in how people judge and influence each other. My point here is that these are obstacles that graduate students can overcome.
There is an answer… a practical and affordable retention solution can support the right students to persist to graduation. A system that bolsters the work our professional and faculty advisors are doing to support students. Being able to find and engage students who are at-risk is advantageous, but so is having a system that automatically recognizes key accomplishments and benchmarks. The return on investing in a solution can add significant tuition revenue. More important, it’s difficult to put a monetary value on the impact to the university and future of the student, as well.
I have to share that this topic is close to my heart. I almost left graduate school myself. I realized early on in my clinical psychology program that I was not interested in being a therapist. Furthermore, I was presented with a fantastic job offer that would have been hard to refuse. A faculty mentor showed me the value of finishing my program. Looking back, I made exactly the right decision.
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