How colleges can reach ‘stopped-out’ students

What students find effective engagement differs between groups, according to a survey of students who've withdrawn from their studies. Experts think technology can help.
(Getty Images)

When looking to retain students, colleges must consider that engagement strategies are not one-size-fits all, according to a report two higher education organizations released Wednesday.

The online education company StraighterLine and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, an industry group, found that what students considered effective engagement significantly differed based on demographics. Researchers created “personas” for students who withdrew from college after earning credits, analyzing survey data to find which strategies appealed to different sorts of learners.

The survey found that men between 23-26 would be more likely to remain enrolled if they had more assistance from campus staff, while women between 20-22 said curriculum options with cheaper tuition would be a more helpful way to keep students.

The survey gauged what caused “stopped out” students to pause their educations — and what would bring them back. The work comes as colleges and universities look to bring back stopped-out students and keep others enrolled. College enrollment dropped about 3.5% in the first year of the pandemic, the steepest drop in a decade, according to according to the National Student Clearinghouse.


“A lot of institutions, when a student leaves, they really don’t put into a triage plan to bring them back,” Jim Fong, the University Professional and Continuing Education Association’s chief research officer, told EdScoop. “If they’re more intentional and they create programs or an action plan to reengage this disengaged student as opposed to ignoring them and they they do it fairly quickly — one of the things that that data shows is that the sooner they respond, the more likelihood they’ll get them to reengage.”

Researchers also found that financial difficulties were the top reason students leave school, followed by family commitments and institutions not being the right fit. Amy Smith, StraighterLine’s chief learning officer, said that technology can serve as an equalizer, especially as more schools adopt online learning practices and digital engagement strategies. Colleges that offer online education and support networks outside classrooms — academic advisers, librarians and financial aid counselors — allow students to get help regardless of time or location, she said.

“You’re no longer alone even though you might be sitting in your car or at your desk on a break, reading your textbook, or putting the kids to bed and starting to do your homework on your couch,” Smith said.

Many schools have also embraced chatbots to offer online engagement and answer questions and are exploring how to use machine learning to flag students at risk of withdrawing from their studies.

The study also found that students were interested in microcredentials, with about 43% saying that certificates for credits already earned could be an extremely effective retention strategy. That could mean reviewing a student’s work experience and applying credits based on technical skills, Smith said.


Building more of these “on- and off-ramps” for education is helpful when colleges and universities are trying to keep students on board, Fong said.

“[Younger adults] don’t want to wait for that whole degree,” he said. “They see value in terms of the course and the credit.”

Emily Bamforth

Written by Emily Bamforth

Reporter for StateScoop and EdScoop covering IT, decision-making and modernization. Before joining Scoop News Group, reported for six years for and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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