How to convert more Applicants into enrolled Students

    How universities can improve student retention rates

    With the UK university dropout rate at its highest in four years, here are five ways universities can improve student retention
    Last updated:
    February 14, 2024

    There's a lot of talk around improving student admissions rates, but issues around student retention are just as important. The university dropout rate for UK domestic students has increased for the first time in four years.

    According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, six per cent of first degree entrants aged under 21 who enrolled in 2013-14 did not continue their studies beyond their first year.

    We’ve already covered how universities can convert more applications into enrolled students: read on for five things your university can do to improve its retention strategy for enrolled students.

    Photo by Element5 Digital.

    A survey undertaken by What Works? in 2012 found that between 37% and 42% of students think about withdrawing from higher education. The survey asserts that both students and staff are responsible for student retention – and this should be instilled in both groups as early in the student lifecycle as possible.

    While much research shows that the students who most need support are the least likely to come forward voluntarily, there are many things universities can do to ensure student retention rates don’t dip.

    Begin at pre-entry

    Your university’s retention services should begin before students enrol, and continue throughout the student lifecycle. You should design services that encourage prospects to build social relationships with fellow students and staff once they’ve accepted their offers.

    This could be facilitated through physical events like open days, as well as online on forums and social media. Face-to-face interaction can then be encouraged on campus once term begins.

    YouTube videos let candidates know what to expect on open days and provide universities with the chance to show off their campus. 

    Once students are enrolled, a thorough orientation will help new arrivals feel engaged and less daunted by their new place of learning, which is likely to be several times bigger than the schools they’ve previously attended.

    When classes begin, active learning should be encouraged: students who feel comfortable in contributing to lessons will be more likely to feel engaged in their studies. Prompt and insightful feedback assures students their work is being read and their contributions valued.

    Staff should demonstrate that they expect high quality from all students and respect diverse learning styles so as not to risk excluding students.

    Shape realistic expectations

    It’s important to shape realistic expectations in students before enrolment. According to the What Works? report, the most common reasons for thinking about leaving were ‘course-related issues’, so be sure to make students aware of course content, how their course is assessed and how your university will help students transition from study to the professional world.

    It’s also beneficial to provide incoming students with realistic expectations about other aspects of university life: what the campus is like, which societies exist and which social actives are popular. This could be communicated through email campaigns, social media and blog posts, and on-campus events.

    Offer academic services

    Academic services are designed to assist students with their study and personal development, and can be useful in monitoring their progress. Student ambassadors can provide newly enrolled students guidance and offer advice directly relevant to the student experience.

    Peer mentoring can be effective for similar reasons, and students often find it easier to approach their peers than they do staff, who they often assume are too busy to help them. The What Works? report found that just under 75% of students surveyed agreed that becoming involved in peer mentoring had helped them feel part of the university.

     UEL's peer mentors provide guidance, support and knowledge.

     Design services for students most likely to drop-out

    It’s a good idea to design services to specifically address the needs of students from low-income families. Research published last year by Stand Alone, using a representative sample of 584 students who lack family support, suggested that 41% had considered withdrawing or suspending: 14% had actually done so.

    When asked for the reasons, finance and stress were the main contributing factors. Services should also target mature students. The Higher Education Statistics Agency report found that a higher proportion of mature entrants than young entrants do not continue in higher education after their first year (11.8% in 2013-14).

    Services should also be tailored towards students who spend less time on campus because they live at home and/or have work and family commitments. These students often have less opportunities to meet peers through socialising at, for instance, university halls or the student union.

    University of York provides information on how home-based students can access support and get involved in campus life.

    Social media can also be useful to encourage networking between students, especially those who are not based on campus – both pre and post-entry.

    Monitor engagement

    Monitor attendance for lectures, seminars and non-compulsory events to see who’s turning up to what. Keep an eye on library usage and whether students are using peer mentor and student ambassadors services. Have a look at student performance in early assessments and speak to faculty about students who appears to be struggling, as early as possible.

    You should particularly monitor students during at-risk times such as Christmas and the start of the new year.

    Photo by Muhammad Rizwan.

    To learn more about how your university can turn more leads into applicants, and more applicants into students, download our free ebook.


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