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Identifying Barriers and Key Drivers Impacting Student Persistence

Part 2 in a 3 Part Series to Challenge You in the New Year

Man thinking on a couch. His right hand covering his face to indicate deep thought or concern.

It is January 2023 and it is time to change how you view the student experience. At the end of 2022 I shared how we, at EdSights, are challenging the status quo and looking at student persistence through a new lens. We follow the work of Dr. Vincent Tinto, which requires us to make a fundamental shift in how we view college completion: a shift from student retention to student persistence, which looks at the college completion crisis from the student perspective.

Colleges and universities who want increases in student retention and graduation rates can no longer focus on what they, as the institution, can do to improve retention. Instead, they need to view the problem from the student perspective and ask the following questions:

  • Why do students stay enrolled in college?

  • Why do students keep going?

  • What motivates them to persist?

Students care that they graduate, not where they graduate from. Identifying solutions that align with why students persist are how colleges and universities are going to help students achieve their goal of graduation, thus improving retention and graduation rates.

Barriers to Student Persistence

In the introduction to this series, I shared my own experience with student persistence. A time when three of my friends and I left for semester break, but I was the only one to return. Three of the four of us did not persist. Would a wellness check before the break have made a difference for my friends? We will never know. But we do know, in the past several years, the barriers to student persistence have shifted and we must acknowledge these barriers in the solutions and interventions we deploy on our campuses.

Today’s barriers to persistence include:

  • Academic engagement

  • Financial distress (including food and housing insecurity)

  • Wellness (specifically mental health and wellbeing)

  • Sense of belonging

Academic engagement and sense of belonging are longstanding barriers to student persistence, repeatedly identified in decades of research. In recent years, financial distress and wellness have entered the student persistence conversation and have been accelerated by the pandemic.

In a recent sampling of nearly 1,000 students who participated in our Winter Break Wellness Check (a part of our Adaptive AI Framework for supporting student persistence) almost 40% of students who responded that they were struggling during break cited mental health concerns as the main driver for why they were struggling either academically or socially.

In another study focused on mental health issues of college students, more than 60% of college students met criteria for one or more issues in mental health. The National College Health Assessment found that almost three in four students report psychological distress. In yet another study, 88% of respondents believe colleges and universities face a mental health crisis, but fewer than 20% of students felt their campuses were supportive.

When it comes to financial distress, 42% of students report leaving their college or university due to financial reasons. Depending on the type of college, anywhere from 29-38% of students report food insecurity. And even more concerning, three in five college students experience housing insecurity, which correlates strongly with student persistence.

It’s a never-ending cycle: academic performance impacts mental health and vice versa; sense of belonging impacts mental health and vice versa; financial distress impacts academic performance, sense of belonging, and mental health. In circumstances such as these, how can a student remain connected and stay motivated to persist?

“Reimagining the Student Experience”

Earlier this fall, the Chronicle of Higher Education released a report, Reimagining the Student Experience. The report expands on when and how colleges and universities should connect with the whole student, connecting early and often, to build a sense of belonging:

“Belonging, or the sense of connectedness and the feeling that you matter to those around you, translates into stronger academic performance, persistence, and engagement. And even through the pandemic, a sense of belonging has remained an important predictor of student mental health.”

Breaking the cycle is a challenge and requires creative, smart, and efficient solutions that recognize the interconnectedness of academic performance, sense of belonging, financial stress, and wellbeing. Each of these barriers does not exist independently from one another. At EdSights, we discuss the connection between the barriers to student persistence and implore you to think differently about the student experience of today’s college student.

Connect Early and Connect Socially

In the Chronicle report, connecting early is essential to student success. Connecting early and socially to build a sense of belonging is key to student persistence. In the 2020 National Survey of Student Engagement, students who reported a stronger sense of belonging intended to return to their college at higher rates. Further, 97% of students who felt valued by their college or university intended to persist to the following semester or year. Using AI, either through chatbots or text messaging, allows you to help students make connections earlier while also showcasing how you value them as a member of your community.

  • Students don’t know what they don’t know. Think back to your own experience and try to remember the challenges you faced learning the campus culture, knowing where to go for help, or the inability to know you were in trouble before it was too late. Think about how an AI chatbot or text that automatically pushed out this information at key points in the first semester might have made a difference for you or a friend.

  • Financial distress is real, and financial aid can be hard to understand. Colleges and universities require students and families to figure it out fast before they ever step foot on campus. The reality, though, is that the process even beyond the first enrollment period needs to be demystified. There are current student scholarships, additional loans that become available, and other aid current students should be aware of, but aren’t. Use AI to send relevant financial aid information, deadline reminders, and to ask students if they are aware of the financial resources available to them.

Know the Motivating Factors for Persistence

Students are not motivated by the beauty of your campus or the number of student organizations available, but rather by the outcome of graduation and achieving a good job. The reality is this: they can achieve this almost anywhere, and they will consistently choose the place that provides them the level of support needed to achieve that end goal.

  • Get a better job

  • Learn more about topics of interest

  • Receive relevant training

  • Earn more money

There are different approaches for connecting with students once we understand and acknowledge these motivating factors. Of course, I am a big believer in a personalized and empathetic use of technology to help us accomplish this at scale.

A few opportunities we leverage as part of our approach include:

  • Ask students specifically if they feel they are learning more, getting relevant training, and preparing for their future career;

  • Ask students if they feel they are getting the support they need to graduate and get the job they want;

  • Ask students if, even early on, they can see the financial benefit of their college education;

  • For those who answer no, use texting to follow-up with key pieces of information and support services.

AI-supported solutions allow you to ask specific questions of individual students and get responses that help you provide targeted follow-up and support on a larger scale.

Coming Up Next Week

In our final part of this series, we will look specifically at financial distress and mental wellbeing as key factors in connecting with the whole student and understanding the student experience.

Although we’ve briefly touched on each of these issues, the interconnectedness of financial distress and mental wellbeing with academic performance and sense of belonging requires us to dive deeper into how students are impacted by these barriers and what you, as an institution, can do to provide better and more meaningful support.


By Carolina Recchi

Co-Founder and CEO at EdSights

Carolina moved to the US from Italy at 17 for college. As a first-generation US college student she experienced first-hand the hurdles of navigating higher education. Not knowing who to turn to for help as a student, she decided to build a technology that helps all students navigate college. Today, EdSights works with ~100 institutions and Carolina was named by Forbes one of the most influential people in education.



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