Benchmark This!

Latest Trends Impacting Marketing and Higher Education
from Director of UPCEA's Center for Research and Strategy, Jim Fong

[Snap Poll Results] Retention and Persistence

It is clear that higher education will face a number of challenges over the next decade as the pandemic has accelerated a number of technological, societal and economic trends. Further complicating the matters for institutions of higher education in the U.S. is the fact that demographic trends show an upcoming decade of declining traditional students. Higher education has started to diversify its risk by offering more online programs over the past decade and now has started down the path of alternative or new credentialing. As part of this movement, many institutions are exploring stackable credentials and how they fit into occupational pathways. Some have also integrating noncredit or professional programs into their educational portfolios to support a number of these occupational pathway strategies.


With this transformation, operating metrics are certain to change. Many institutions track completion for degree seekers based on what percentage graduate, as well as what percentage graduate over a specific time period, such as four-year or six-year graduation rates. When servicing part-time learners, such as those enrolled a fully online degree program, graduation rates could be measured in longer time periods, such as 7, 8, or even 9 years or more[1].


However, with the movement toward alternative or new credentials, will part-time learners or full-time learners in fully online programs extend their timeframes? Will they feel the same urgency to finish a degree when earning certificates or badges may immediately help them with their career goals? A recent UPCEA snap poll of 66 institutions taken in June shows that just under two-thirds of institutions track persistence or retention of fully online students. They use a number of metrics including % of cohort still enrolled (64%) fall-to-fall or spring-to-spring, % of cohort still enrolled term-to-term (55%), % of cohort still enrolled in the calendar year (32%), individual course completion (32%) and other metrics. Professional, continuing and online (PCO) units are, however, more focused short-term metrics, as 91% rate new student recruiting as extremely important compared to 64% saying student persistence/retention/completion were extremely important. 


In the new economy, with more educational alternatives, the classic measurement that is based off retention or persistence toward a degree or completion of a degree is likely to be convoluted due to the rise of alternative or new credentials. We need to be prepared to measure this and report progress correctly. It is likely that classic measures of retention and completion may paint what appears to be a decline or drop in performance, when in reality, the news may be good in that they are reconnecting to the institution and the economy through new credentialing opportunities. For more information, see the full results of the snap poll here.


[1] IPEDs Graduation Rates, Publication No. 2017046, December 2016.



Jim Fong, UPCEA

Lead consultant Jim Fong, the founding director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy, has extensive background in marketing at Penn State, as well as experience in private industry. Jim brings a rich understanding of the dynamics driving today’s higher education leaders, providing research-driven strategy and positioning. Jim often presents at UPCEA’s regional and national conferences, sharing vital information with attendees.

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