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Why the University of South Dakota is Re-Recruiting Already Enrolled Students to Boost Retention and Graduation

By Steve Ward, Director of the Academic and Career Planning Center at the University of South Dakota

Like many public universities, the University of South Dakota (USD) has worked hard to boost student retention and degree completion over past two decades. After climbing steadily during the early 2000s, USD’s first-year retention rates had stabilized at 75 to 76 percent since 2012. The university had not yet been able to meet its goal of an 80 to 82 percent first-year retention rate. Graduation rates continued to rise steadily, however, despite the relatively flat first-year retention rates. Even so, campus administrators worried that without concerted efforts to improve year-to-year persistence, graduation rates would plateau, as retention rates had. We needed a new approach to keep students actively engaged throughout the student journey.

Addressing this concern, two senior academic advisors proposed a communications plan to help students stay enrolled and on track to graduate. Their plan centered on two basic assumptions. First, students are likely to feel supported when they are recruited to enroll at USD. Second, students do better academically when they feel supported throughout their educational journey. As the academic year moves along, the blush of starting a new adventure fades. Students who were able to look past financial, family, and self-efficacy obstacles at the beginning of the year may succumb to those obstacles as they confront the academic rigor of college and adjusting to a new phase of life.

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National data supports these assumptions. In the 2017 and 2018 ACT Engage surveys, incoming freshmen registered higher self-perceptions of their academic discipline, determination, and social connections and lower self-perceptions in their academic self-confidence and social connections. When combined with retention data, the Engage data suggested a strong relationship between the lack of self-confidence and student departure from USD. And National Survey of Student Engagement results added support to the idea USD could improve its campus and collaborative learning environments.

The advisors concluded that the university needed to implement a concerted effort to remind students they made a good choice by attending USD; that support is available to them; and that they can take actionable steps upon meeting challenges/opportunities at various times in the semester. They proposed a plan to the USD Executive Committee to intentionally communicate the university’s desire to support students in achieving their goals. They based their approach on Martin Brokenleg’s perspectives on mastery, which they hoped would speak to the disparate cultures to which our students adhere.

In order to promote a unified message, they developed four themes for an in-house marketing campaign to current USD students, staggered at strategic time periods, approximately at the six- and 12-week periods of each semester, which are critical junctures in the student journey. They proposed the creation of a committee made up of advisors, faculty, student services staff, marketing staff, and students that could refine the messages and develop the campaign. During the academic year, the committee created a campaign with the related materials, including short films, internet pop-ups, posters, and other messaging. The committee also created text messaging that executive committee members could send to faculty and staff, explaining the rationale behind each theme and encouraging faculty and staff to support the theme in their classrooms and offices.

The USD executive committee approved the plan in August 2019 and it was implemented last academic year. USD’s director of assessment chaired the committee; the advisors who created the proposal served as vice-chairs. The rest of the committee included two faculty members, a TRIO advisor, the director of the student union, a marketing department professional, and three students.

Implementation has gone relatively smoothly. The committee worked well together, developing a logo and an eye-catching and welcoming style for the website and posters. The committee met monthly to develop messaging and action items for faculty and staff that were then sent from the provost’s office email account. Student messaging via emails and texts sought to direct students to the website and were distributed through EAB’s Navigate system. Though the marketing department did not have the time to create significant video content, they created two new student testimonials with relatively high production value that are featured on the website and played in the main dining area in USD’s student union building. Students were given a message of hope and understanding and then directed to act.

The committee will have to continue to assess the effectiveness of the re-recruitment of the effort. But the effort sparked a significant increase in the number of faculty using EAB Navigate for establishing office hours during the first marketing campaign last October and there was a small increase in the number of students logging into to our career website during the campaign last March.

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