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The Top Five Reasons Your Students Aren’t Returning (And What Can You Do About Them)

Each semester EdSights performs a Persistence Check-In for the over 200,000 enrolled students of our college and university partners. The process is simple. An institutionally branded chatbot sends each student an SMS text message asking if they are planning to return the following semester.

When student’s indicate “no” or “unsure”; that is when the bot leaps into action. Leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI), the institutionally branded chatbot has previously learned from and about each individual student from prior interactions. This enables the bot to respond immediately with helpful resources and information about how to connect with on campus staff members who can best support that student’s needs.

What key drivers are impacting student persistence?

We mined this spring’s Persistence Check-In for data and information in an effort to provide meaningful insights to the EdSighters community. We found that, contrary to popular belief, academic challenges are not the top indicator when it comes to student persistence. In fact, it isn’t even in the top 5!

The five drivers impacting student persistence for Spring 2022 are:

  1. Financial

  2. Mental Health

  3. Logistics

  4. Work/School Balance

  5. Lack Faculty/Staff Support

Not unsurprisingly, financial issues are by far the key driver in today’s economic reality. 28% of respondents indicated something related to finances (loss of a job, cost of tuition, etc.) impacted their decision to continue at their current institution. These challenges range from loss of financial aid to questioning the value of their program which ultimately came down to not seeing ROI.

Mental Health is another key driver and one that institutions are uniquely positioned to support. Consider that the next three drivers impacting persistence are in many ways linked to, and can influence, a student’s mindset and well being. We’ll dive deeper into mental health-related recommendations next week as a part of our series in recognition of Mental Health Awareness month.

How can institutions react?

There are some issues with respect to the financial challenges students face that are outside of the immediate control of the institution. We acknowledge that there are many opportunities to discuss systemic challenges with regard to the cost of higher education that may be out of the scope of recommendations we can provide. However, with our focus on student sentiment we found that when students cite "finances" as a driver they do not always mean "cost". Oftentimes what students were sharing were comments like "I can get the same education somewhere cheaper" or "the money doesn't seem worth it". What students are telling us is that they do not see the value of the investment but are willing to continue to make that investment if they felt it was worth it. After a deep analysis of comments identified through our Persistence Check-In, here are three takeaways for how institutions can tackle key financial challenges that students face:

1. Demonstrating ROI

Humans like to feel good about our investments. The moment we begin to question value and expected outcomes, we begin to question our expenditure of time, effort, and money. This drives us to pursue cheaper options or stop making the investment completely, as we saw in the responses we’ve received from students). Research shows that motivation is the key driver of persistence. As retention scholar Dr. Vincent Tinto puts it "a student who is motivated to persist, will do so even when challenges arise". Demonstrating clear ROI throughout the academic experience is a key driver of student motivation.

Collaboration and alignment between academic affairs, career services, and alumni relations are great ways to help students see the value of their investment. Showcasing the outcomes of a degree while simultaneously supporting the building of their own personal network connects the dots and helps students see the value of their degree outside of what they are learning in the classroom.

2. Streamline Institutional Processes

While there will always be challenges outside of an institution’s control, (i.e. no single institution controls the FAFSA process), there are things that each institution can do to better support students throughout the financing process.

If we look back to the not-too-distant past, methods and processes developed in response to COVID-19 may be the key to better supporting students through complex processes. Scalable solutions — like step-by-step video tutorials and chatbot tools — can help to streamline student support by providing consistent availability without asking your team to work 24/7.

3. Support Work/Life Balance

Considering another identified top driver was students’ needs to balance work and school, offering hybrid options for remote learning and flexibility of modality will better support today’s learners. While this may take organizational and structural changes at the institution, it is an imperative for maximizing student retention and success.

In addition to offering flexible options for coursework completion, institutions should strive to make any and all resources related to employment opportunities available to students early and often.

What’s Next?

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, and considering the wide array of issues we identify above, we will focus EdSights Weekly on key topics related to supporting student’s mental health. In addition to the key recommendations, we’ll dive deeper to showcase individual institutions and the success they are seeing from their efforts.


Solving the college completion crisis.

Institutions who partner with EdSights between now and August 1, 2022 have the opportunity to join the largest scale persistence study in history. The goal is to uncover new trends and insights around the factors driving completion across the nation, and provide participants with real-time insights on their specific students.

On top of providing participants with key insights for their campus and national benchmarks, students enrolled at participating institutions will benefit from our AI persistence framework that connects them to personalized resources over SMS.

With the study’s findings, we will release a new annual report to serve as the nation’s first benchmark for student persistence and retention. The report will be released next fall at our inaugural client summit.

For institutions who are in the early stages of their persistence strategic planning, or for those looking to enhance their current efforts, we hope the study will provide a data driven foundation fueled by the voices and experiences of their students.



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