Why Tennessee Colleges Must Focus on Retention, Not Just Recruitment

The Association for Governing Boards (AGB) recently hosted a summit in Washington, DC that brought together dozens of leading scholars and policy experts to discuss the changing landscape of higher education. We hotly debated the (a) rising costs of college (averages ranging from $21K [public] to $47K [private]), (b) shrinking state investments despite upticks in some states like Tennessee that witnessed a 7.3% gain, (c) eroding public (dis)trust in college admissions practices, and (d) the looming “enrollment bust” that’s predicted to hit postsecondary institutions by 2026, if not sooner.

Truth is, it’s expected that every sector of higher education will be negatively impacted by seismic declines in the college-going population over the next 6 years, but tremors can already be felt at some institutions especially small colleges in Tennessee (TN). Though the state’s 13 community colleges enrolled 87,863 students in Fall 2019, this was down 0.2% from the previous year. Drops were double-digits at Tennessee small colleges.

Institutions generally respond to enrollment slumps by emphasizing recruitment—glossy advertisements, strategic marketing, and digital technologies to optimize communication with prospective students. This makes sense especially when campaigns are directed at new growth markets like restored citizens, working adults, or the 36 million Americans with some college but no degree. Still, recruitment alone proves insufficient for hitting enrollment targets and marketing/branding costs can be prohibitive for small and minority-serving institutions.

Students studying and laughing in library

To thrive, colleges must also focus on retention and graduation of current students. “Access without success is useless,” as I like to recall. And the evidence is clear: It’s cheaper to retain current students than to enroll new ones. Of course, there are no easy solutions but several promising practices that TN colleges should consider: emergency retention grants, predictive data systems, and wrap-around support services, to name a few. As Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs at LeMoyne-Owen College, I raised private funds and analyzed student-level data to establish the “Last Mile” grants that provided up to $1,500 in aid to seniors within a year of graduation who faced financial barriers affecting their re-enrollment/completion. We awarded over $20K in the first year and graduated the largest class in recent history. By focusing on retention and recruitment, TN colleges can weather the gathering storm ahead.

About the Author

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn is President/CEO of Do Good Work Educational Consulting and Professor of Urban Education at LeMoyne-Owen College, where he previously served as Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs. He is author of “College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students.”