Strategies for student success: Preparation, progression, and completion

December 2, 2019
  • AACRAO Consulting
  • Enrollment Management
  • SEM Assessment
  • SEM Leadership
  • SEM Plan Development
three pillars with people standing on them. the person on the highest podium is jumping with excitement

by AACRAO Senior Consultant Dr. Alicia Moore

Numerous practitioners and researchers have dedicated time to key concepts supporting successful retention strategies. Certainly Vincent Tinto’s early work on the theory on student departure and Alexander Astin’s (1986) focus on how to best integrate a student within the institution grounds much of this work.

More recently, work through the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Student Engagement challenges institutions to build intentional efforts to engage students within the institution as a means of building strong connections grounded in student progression and ultimately student completion. While these theories guide much of our work, tangible examples of retention strategies are key to helping institutions build comprehensive programs and services to support students in their educational journeys. Designed with practitioners in mind, this article provides a high-level summary of proven and promising best practices in student retention.

Beyond retention: Redefining student success

Before we move on with the focus of this article, it is important to take a brief pause and shift our thinking about the term "retention." Retention is typically defined as whether a student returns to the institution, albeit for their second term or second year. The challenge with solely using retention to define student success is that it is simply a marker in time and does not demonstrate whether a student is making progress towards their intended goal. Quoting John Gardner, co-founder for the Center on First-Year Student Experience, “at its worst, retention is a student returning for a term, but with C and D grades -- and I think we all want our students to be more successful than that (2017).” 


As discussions regarding retention evolve, many institutions are shifting their thinking to focus on student success. Student success allows the institution to use multiple data indicators (placement, retention, course completion rates, progress towards certificate or degree requirements, and completion, just to name a few) and as such, brings a more holistic and comprehensive view of the student experience. Moreover, a student success approach requires that an institution engage in strategic and intentional deliberations about what key measures of success fit their institution, its mission and its students. As a result, institutional units can rally around these measures, adjusting and implementing programs and services to meet institutional student success goals.

Given this, this article abandons the word “retention” as its focus and instead, shifts to the more comprehensive, strategic, intentional, and student-centric term of student success.

True Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) work requires thinking holistically about the student’s entire experience with the institution.


SEM: More than admissions

All too often I find myself in conversations with institutions wanting to hire a “director of enrollment management” and through those discussions, I find that institutions define enrollment management solely as an admissions and recruitment function. Crushed, I avoid advising a change of title to “director of admissions” and instead engage colleagues in discussions to help build an understanding that true Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) work requires thinking holistically about the student’s entire experience with the institution, from recruitment through graduation and all points in between.

Additionally, successful SEM work requires active communication and collaboration across all divisions of the institution – enrollment, student affairs, instruction and others – to develop shared student success goals aligned with the institution’s mission; only then can the institution recruit students who align with the institution’s mission and build programs and services to help them be successful (Bontrager, 2009; Dolence, 1993). Simply said, SEM and student success are synonymous.


Success strategies throughout the student lifecycle

Adopting the concept that student success begins with recruitment and continues through graduation, this article breaks down the strategies to align with the student lifecycle, including preparation, progression, and completion.  Before diving in, however, it is also important to note the growing emphasis on early preparation programs as a means of increasing access for underrepresented populations as well as building college success strategies early on for any student’s academic career. Examples of these strategies include dual credit or other means by which high school students earn college credit; leadership and college preparation programs, often offered during summer breaks or embedded as part of middle school and high school curriculum; career camps, allowing middle and high school students an opportunity to explore a variety of careers that require a post-secondary credential; and mentoring programs, in which college students mentor high school students with the goal of increasing post-secondary attendance. While this list is by no means comprehensive, these strategies cannot be overlooked as a means of increasing student success, both in terms of high school completion rates and student success upon entering higher education.

Preparation strategies

To help students start on the right track, it is imperative that institutions engage in a comprehensive review of student interactions from the point of admission through the first week or two of enrollment; doing so helps ensure a successful start and set the foundation for long-term success. Examples of preparation strategies include:

  • Multiple Measures:  Institutions are using more frequently a variety of data points when placing students into foundational math and writing courses, as opposed to the historical practice relying on a college entrance test score or a single post-admission assessment. As a result, many institutions are seeing students start at higher levels of math and writing sequences as well as progressing through courses at pass rates equal to or greater than previous placement methods.
  • Early Deadlines:  We have all heard the adage, “last in, first out.” In higher education, this means that the later the students complete registration requirements, the less likely they are to be successful (Safer, 2009). Therefore, many institutions are adopting early deadlines, even amongst open access institutions.
  • Academic Planning:  Rather than solely meeting with an academic advisor to pick a first term class schedule, institutions are adopting interactive, technology-based systems to map out a long-term educational plan. By charting their future coursework, students can often envision themselves as successful students thereby building their belief that they can and will be successful.
  • Guided Pathways:  While the full concept of guided pathways is far more comprehensive, as a preparation strategy it helps narrow the cornucopia of choices a student may have for a major, clusters like programs together, and builds shared “ road maps” for course requirements.
  • Orientation:  While orientation can have multiple definitions, the most effective orientations are those in which the content focuses on study skills, career planning, academic planning, and most importantly, building personal connections with the institution. Moreover, successful orientation program start before the student’s first term and continues to engage students throughout their first few weeks and up to the entire first term.

Progression strategies

As discussed earlier, retention in and of itself is not an effective measure of student success. Instead, institutions must look at strategies which not only keeps the student at the institution, but keeps them in a way that leads to greater success and completion. While by no means comprehensive, the following offers a brief review of contemporary student progress strategies.
  • First-Year Experience (FYE):  FYE programs focus on comprehensive approaches designed to improve student success rates of first-year students from admission through the first year. FYE activities frequently include mandatory academic advising, new student orientation, and a college-success course, among other options, but also vary greatly depending on institutional mission and student need (Alexander & Gardner, 2009).
  • Learning Communities:  Learning communities (LC) are a set of courses in which students typically register as a group. LC’s include linked courses (separate courses that are linked thematically or by required out of classroom activities), cohort (courses in which students register as a group and can include integrated academic support and/or social activities), and integrated (team-taught, usually focused on a specific theme or issue, with integrated assignments and grades).
  • Early Alert:  Early alerts are models by which faculty and staff can identify students who face academic or personal challenges early in the student’s academic career. The institution connects the student with interventions appropriate to student needs. Early alert programs typically include a software system that enable the reporting of the initial alert, communication with students, and tracking of student progress.
  • Embedded Tutoring:  We all have had the experience of not wanting to go out of our way to ask for help. Embedded tutoring, on the other hand, brings the help directly to students by integrating it into the class itself. Using both professional and peer tutors, embedded tutoring programs often focus on courses with high failure or drop rates, but can be extended to a multitude of courses based on student and institutional need.
  • Academic Probation Interventions:  Best practices indicate that institutions that create intentional, intrusive and structured interventions for students not meeting academic standards have stronger student success rates than those who do not. Examples of interventions include requiring students to enroll in specific courses, developing a long-term academic plan with tailored assistance, assignment to specialized advisors, and/or participation in study skills workshops.
  • Career Coaching:  Effective career coaching programs are far more intrusive than simply offering a career services or career placement office. Similar to embedded tutoring, career coaching brings the service to a student by requiring professional advisors to obtain a career coaching credential and embedding career discussions alongside academic planning, embedding coaches into introductory courses and/or cohort programs, and regular outreach to students throughout the student’s academic career.

Completion strategies

Deploying any combination of the above strategies means that you have laid a strong foundation for a student’s success. However, it is critical that institutions not overlook getting students to the finish line. To that end, I offer the following completion strategies:

  • Career Pathways:  Sometimes called “stacked credentials,” career pathways are courses that lead to a series of credentials, with each credential building upon one another. Combined, the credentials often align with specific careers and result in a degree. The theory supporting career pathways is that a student who reaches a specific milestone (i.e., a short-term certificate) is more likely to achieve the next milestone (i.e., a degree). 
  • Reverse Transfer:  Reverse transfer programs automatically award a community college transfer degree after a student transfers to a partner university. Briefly, the university runs as associate degree audit for any student previously attending a community college and notifies the community college if the student meets requirements. The community college automatically awards the degree. This concept is similar to that of “stacked credentials,” meaning that a student who earns one credential is more likely to earn a higher-level credential. As such, reverse transfer is a key strategy for many baccalaureate institutions.
  • Completion Scholarships: Typically targeting students who have stopped out within one or two terms of completion, institutions provide scholarships and/or tuition discounts to encourage students to return to the institution and complete remaining requirements. These programs can also come with enhanced support services, including academic advising, tutoring, and others tailored to student need. 
It is also important to capture that much of the above must be delivered in a medium that is student-centric. Long gone are the days of letters and email. Instead, communicating with students via text, app-based systems and social media tremendously influence the level of engagement and connection felt by today’s college student. As such, an institution would be remiss if many of the above services were not delivered in means other than in person. 

While the above list of strategies is not all-inclusive, it aims to provide institutions with a high-level view of proven strategies supporting student success. Additional information on all of these strategies can be found in the literature, ranging from research articles discussing the efficacy of these strategies to best practice articles providing tangible direction. Regardless of which direction an institution wishes to take, it will be most effective if it can be done in the context of enrollment management’s strategic, data-driven, collaborative process to identify measures of success aligned with its student population and institutional mission. It is in this SEM-centric environment by which an institution can do it best by students – that is, help them succeed.

For more information or to contact Dr. Moore, please visit AACRAO Consulting, email or call (202) 355-1056.  


Alexander, J. S. & Gardner, J. N. (2009). Beyond retention: A comprehensive approach to the first college year. About Campus, 14(2), 18-26. doi: 10.1002/abc.285
Bontrager, B. & Clemetsen, C. (2009). Applying SEM at the community college. Washington, DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Dolence, M. G. (1993). Strategic enrollment management: A primer for campus administrators. Washington, DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Gardner, J. (2017). First-year experience at Central Oregon Community College [lecture]. 
Jayne, R. (1986). The importance of student involvement: A dialogue with Alexander Astin. Journal of Counseling and Development, 65(2), 92-96. Doi: 10.1002/j.1556-6676.1986.tb01240
Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Safer, A. A. (2009). The effect of late registration for college classes. College Student Journal, 43(4), 1380-1388. 



AACRAO's bi-weekly professional development e-newsletter is open to members and non-members alike.