The Flip Side of NACAC Changes: Student Retention

March 03, 2020

When the recent NACAC changes inevitably come up in conversation among higher ed professionals, the strategies usually first discussed are those that I like to call being “on the offense.”

Things like: offering enticing Early Decision incentives (first choice housing, first dibs on class selection, premier parking spot for freshman year, personal success coach, and of course, more money); sending transfer incentives to admits who deposited elsewhere; and, probably the most aggressive, recruiting students from other schools—whether they had applied or not to your school.

And are enrollment teams going on the offense?

According to EAB’s new report, “Enrollment Strategy After the NACAC Vote,” 35 percent of enrollment leaders said they were considering trying to poach other colleges’ students.

At CCA, we assume that the rest of that percentage is likely perched in a wait-and-see position. Who will poach first? And what will their incentives be? One of our associates predicts the near future as resembling “the Wild West,” where anything’s game and professional and personal relationships may even be affected.

But here’s the thing.

Whether or not you’re considering these “on the offense” strategies, there’s one strategy all schools should absolutely be planning for: playing defense. In this case, that means focusing on retention.

Now more than ever, retaining your students should be a top priority. Even if that means changing up your retention tactics and coming up with new big and seemingly small ideas to keep them on campus.

A few ideas…

Host a retention roundtable

Start by asking your team—which ostensibly includes a Director of Retention of some sort—a few questions and thoughtfully discuss your answers.

  1. What’s our retention rate right now—and what’s an attainable goal for next year?
  2. What are we doing to keep our students happy, satisfied, and successful?
  3. How are we measuring their satisfaction throughout the year?
  4. How are we measuring their parents’ satisfaction throughout the year?
  5. What incentives might other schools offer our students to get them to transfer?
  6. Specifically, what could we be doing better?
  7. What are the top reasons our students already transfer out?

Crystallize your retention team’s responsibilities

If you don’t have said Director of Retention already, now is the time to appoint one. And if it were up to me—with my unlimited hypothetical budget and all—I’d consider having a retention marketing team that would focus on student success and student happiness. (A Director of Student Happiness; imagine?)

Not only do you want to keep your students on track to graduate in four years and help them prepare for the workforce, but in this “Wild West” landscape, responsibilities should extend to ensuring that your students (and their families) are, essentially, feeling the love. As all marketers know, experience means everything.

Look at how other brands (in other industries) retain customers

Think about your favorite hotels, restaurants, and retailers, and, well, all your favorite brands. We come for the main product or service, but often, we stay for the perks. We remember that “extra mile,” that surprise-and-delight, the way they made you feel in person or from afar.

A few examples to kick us off, ranging from super small to seriously grand gesture:

  • Consider all the hotels you’ve ever stayed at—and maybe some you’d love to stay at. There’s something about DoubleTree’s free chocolate chip cookies that just make you feel good. The Royal Hawaiian greets guests with a free fresh flower lei, and I read that Hotel Arts in Barcelona gives all guests a small bottle of extra virgin olive oil as a farewell gift. These aren’t necessary; they already have your money. But like with any gift, it’s the thought that counts.
  • Then there’s WW (formerly Weight Watchers) which does a phenomenal job of retaining their members. Whenever someone hits a weight loss goal, they receive a WW Milestone Charm in the mail. It’s tiny and comes with a very simple card, but if you follow WW members on social, boy does it have an enormous impact. People share theirs with pride and hashtags galore. Knowing that a brand you’ve committed to won’t let you fall through the cracks is an amazing thing.
  • There are also those unique company perks we hear so much about. Companies like NASA, Google, and others have nap pods around the building for sleeping breaks. REI offers its employees two paid days each year called Yay Days. The purpose: to enjoy their favorite outdoor activities. Even a simple monogrammed hoodie on your five-year work anniversary says something, right? It’s an employer’s way of making the experience more exciting, comforting, and supportive.

All these tactics are meant to do one thing: keep your customers happy. Yes, colleges and universities, of course, provide returns on investments through education and career preparation, but let’s be honest: these days, that “extra mile” is what can make a huge difference.

So what does that look like in higher ed?

Enrich the post-matriculation experience

Obviously, you’ll want to circulate and activate on ideas that make sense for your brand and the kinds of students and parents you draw. At my pretend college, however, here are some things I’d consider:

  1. Celebrate student successes. Ask all faculty members and coaches to alert the retention team whenever one of their students has accomplished something major or just really excelled at something—a paper, a presentation, an internship, a game. Whenever that happens, the retention team would make sure to acknowledge it. That might mean a handwritten note and small gift for the student (if it’s from the faculty member themselves, even better), a really nice email to the parents (cue the #proudparent posts), or a not-embarrassing shoutout in your campus-wide newsletter. Whatever it is, make that student feel seen, proud, and accomplished. Lots of employers do this for their employees; why not colleges?
  2. Welcome students back to school. If hotels can leave a piece of chocolate on their hundreds of beds, schools can do something similar. Picture this: returning students and freshmen arrive at their dorm rooms on move-in day to find a note and maybe a little somethin’ extra—a simple piece of candy, a branded keychain—welcoming them back and wishing them a great year ahead.
  3. Acknowledge birthdays. Every year on my birthday, Nothing Bundt Cakes sends me their automated b-day email offering up a free mini cake, and even if I don’t remember to take them up on it, I appreciate the gesture (and their use of gifs in the email). How about a free cupcake in the dining hall, perhaps, and an automated email that goes out to students on their big days?
  4. Check-ins. Your school may already do this, whether it be through an academic advisor or a wellness center. But I know of plenty of schools that still don’t have someone who just simply checks in on every student throughout the year. It could start with a quick email and maybe an offer to meet up: “Hey, Melissa! Just checking in to see how your year is going.” Ask if they’ve got any concerns, academically or otherwise, if they’re struggling in any area and could use some assistance, or if they have any exciting news to share. I get it, your team is slammed. EVERY STUDENT?! But test it out, see if it makes an impact.
  5. Ask your students. Get your ambassadors in one room and ask them for suggestions: What are your best ideas to make students here feel heard, welcomed, and happy—so happy, that they’ll never even consider transferring? And put it bluntly: what do other colleges offer that might inspire something here? There’s Pomona College’s Ski-Beach Day. Seton Hall’s free laptops for freshmen. Tufts’ cannon-painting tradition. What could we start here, or raise funding for, that could really have an impact on our community?

Maya Angelou said, “You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot—it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.” Are yours?

Reach out if you’d like to talk about retention

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