In May of 2017, the assistant vice president of academic advising for Kennesaw State University sent out an email to 4,000 students who had not yet registered for summer or fall classes.
He asked students what he could do to help them register, and got a ton of replies—1,300 to be exact—telling him why they had not registered yet.
One big reason? Not knowing how to declare their major or how to change a misdeclared major. Students wrote, “I know what I want to do, I know what I want my major to be, but I don’t know who to talk to. I know where I want to go, but I don’t know how to get there.”
Students need a place to go that helps, not hinders, their experience with you—so they stay at your university for their entire educational journey. That resource is your website.
Student Retention: Data and Guiding Principals
As part of a higher education institution, your job is to attract and retain students. That’s hard to do.
Recent student retention rates vary for each type of university in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The retention rate for full-time undergraduate institutions was 81 percent in 2016. At less selective public institutions, the retention rate was 62 percent, while at the most selective colleges and universities, the retention rate was 96 percent.
So unless you’re part of the most selective colleges in the country (which amount to less than 100), keeping students at your university is not a guarantee.
Vincent Tinto, a theorist well-known for his work on student retention, says that the first principal of student retention programs is an “institutional commitment to students.” He says, “Rather than reflect only institutional interests, they continually ask of themselves how their actions serve to further the welfare of the students.”
The second principal: effective retention programs should have an educational commitment to the student. He says colleges and universities should be concerned with the “social and intellectual growth of students” — not just simply keeping students there.
And third, retention programs must provide a social and intellectual community for all students. Tinto puts emphasis on the importance of frequent, rewarding interactions between the faculty members, staff, and students in informal settings outside of the classroom.
Your university probably offers student retention programs with these three principals to keep students engaged until they graduate. Maybe you have a first-year experience program for new students, or you require students to stay in a dorm their first year so they can make friends and get to know the campus. Your university probably offers clubs, events, and a variety of resources for academic support. You’ve got world-renowned faculty, research that impacts the world, and a collaborative community.
Oh, and your library has some really cool things that no one knows about.
Provide an Engaging Website Experience
You work really hard to keep students on campus with some carefully thought out student retention strategies. Especially now that college enrollment is on a consistent decline, you’ve got to work hard to keep the students who are already there — and increase your higher education institution’s graduation rates.
So how do students find out about all of the academic programs, classes, and activities your educational institution has to offer once they have enrolled?
The most important resource for students is your website. Your website is a significant part of your retention efforts. It gives current students everything they need—and everything they’ll potentially get excited about (like the new sandwich shop at the library). Or maybe it’s how they’ll find out about new, insightful research about urban planning conducted by a professor.
To create a website that is truly engaging with easy-to-find information for students, you need to have the right design, user experience, and content strategy.
5 Examples of Things Students are Looking For on a University Website
1. Keep first-year students engaged
You got them there. Now you have to keep them. To help keep them, the website should be easy to navigate. For example, is it easy to figure out how to get involved with student organizations? Because college is so different than high school, it’s important for students to feel like they can make the transition with a supportive group of people.
According to research by Alexander Astin, founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute, one of the elements of a highly involved student is that he or she participates actively in student organizations, and frequently interacts with other students and faculty.
It’s also important to note that the easy-to-find information about student organizations or programs on your website will help those who are considered at-risk students. College can be a scary, confusing, and lonely experience for students who are first in their families to go to college. It’s less appealing to drop out if you make friends and feel a part of a community.
Overall, participation in student organizations can help decrease your student attrition rates. An example from the Western Michigan University website shows it is very easy for new students to find the more than 400 student organizations to join.
2. Make it easy to find degree programs
Your degree programs should be very clear and easy to find for both prospective students and current students. For example, the University of Chicago graduate school lays out their website in a way that is easy for the user to use. UChicagoGRAD has a giant, extremely well-organized hub of information and resources for students that exists in one place.
Under admissions, you can find a database of 101 graduate programs. When you click on each of the programs, you get in-depth information about each one.
Why does it matter to make degrees easy to find and understand?
When you make it easy for students to find what they want to study, they can read about it and see their dreams playing out at your university. A student might say, “This is exactly what I’m looking to study. I’m going to be a chemical engineer.” Or, on the other side of things, a student might say, “I have no idea what I want to study, but these resources are helping me figure it out.” This type of emotional engagement then makes your university part of who they are and one of the biggest positive experiences in their lives. Your university becomes theirs.
You also want to make sure students easily know what classes to take, and make it easy for enrolling in them. When it’s clear to students what classes they need to enroll in and take, this makes things less confusing, and less likely a student will take unnecessary courses.
3. Provide information for students to find resources for academic help
The success of your students greatly depends on the level of academic support they have available. Having a place where students can go to find academic help is huge. Based on Tinto’s principal of education commitment to the student, student learning support and learning communities should not only be a priority at your school, but a priority on your website. When you make it clear to students that you’ll support them throughout their academic journey, students will feel like you care.
UChicagoGRAD gives students resources they need for success. For example, at the graduate level, getting public speaking experience is important. To give students some help, UChicagoGRAD has a program called GRADTalk. Students can easily find this under “academic support” in the top navigation.
Resources like this help students navigate their way through college. It’s very easy for a student to get frustrated with course work with no idea where to go for help.
4. Communicate financial wellness information
Your website should have all of the resources possible to help students afford their education. Fellowships and student employment resources should be easy to find.
It also helps if you have resources for how students can manage their finances while attending college. College — at any level — is expensive. Let students know that you understand how big of an investment it is to get a college education — be very open about the cost of attending and how you can help students afford college.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, barely half of students will complete a degree in a good amount time at four-year institutions. A focus on student success is absolutely necessary. Students should feel confident financially. According to an American Institutes for Research study, availability and access to financial aid is one of the things that directly affects student engagement, and therefore, it directly affects student persistence. Financial wellness resources is one of the factors that help students stay in school.
5. Encourage career development
Students get degrees to graduate and have a rewarding career. To do that, they need to understand how to start their professional journey. You can help them with a clear understanding of where to find career development opportunities.
UChicagoGRAD makes it very clear where to find those resources. Some schools do not make career development resources as clear as they should. UChicagoGRAD does. The programs the team provides include workshops, career exploration events, and individualized advising. Right on the homepage you see a section for “career development.”
The career development team helps students through workshops, career exploration workshops, and making connections with possible employers and alumni. This type of community is necessary to have at any college for student success. Career exploration resources — not only having those resources but also making sure they are easy to access — is especially important for students to envision themselves in a career they either have never heard of yet or want to know more about.
What Does Your University Represent?
In addition to making a website that is easy to navigate and helping current students find everything they are looking for, you need to clearly communicate what your university is all about.
Make sure not only current students, but prospective and alumni also feel proud about where they might go to school or where they went to school.
Part of creating a vision for students to see themselves be with your university throughout their journey involves website design that is modern and feels like you but does not distract the user from the content.
An example of a website that provides this type of experience comes from Northwestern Bienen School of Music.
The design of the website shows the prestige and beauty of the school without distracting users from what they need to know about the school, its events, and its happenings.
If you read one section from this article…
College student retention is not easy. There are many reasons why students leave —sometimes those reasons have nothing to do with your institution. You put in a lot of effort to either increase or keep student engagement levels high. You want to see an increase in graduate rates, and see the student success at all time high.
Although not the main reason, the countless organizations and majors, the top ranked programs, and assistance with financial aid, all helps with student retention efforts. Your institution has all of the resources to keep students on campus—right there—you just need a place that acts as an easy-to-use, single source of truth for your students.
That place is your website.