“Retention Rates. Retention Rates. Retention Rates.”
If you’re a student, faculty or staff of a university, you’ve heard the spiel. This rambling on and on about retention rates doesn’t do a university any favors, though; poor retention rates are only a small symptom of a much larger issue. This issue is often manifested in the university’s mindset as a whole.
It’s well-known that we tuition-paying students fund a university’s day-to-day operations, projects, initiatives and, most importantly, faculty and staff. This is true of any university. For a university to remain in operation, it must also function as a business. This does not mean, however, that a university is just a business whose product is education; this mindset is toxic. If a university is to be successful, it must be, first and foremost, an educational institution.
If a university truly is primarily focused on education, retention rates will take care of themselves. Think about some of the top schools in the nation — Harvard, Yale, UCLA, etc. — and ask yourself if you think the leadership of these universities worry about retention rates. They don’t. They have to come up with new and innovative ways to interview the thousands of students who come knocking on their doors every year. This is all because they are primarily institutions of higher education first, businesses second.
There’s no reason NSU shouldn’t have students breaking down its doors to get admitted. Its professors are some of the best in the nation: they’re experienced in their fields, they’re passionate about what they do, and they’re innovative educators.
So why are the students leaving — or not even coming at all, for that matter? What happened to the old adage, “If you build it, they will come?” It still holds true, but in this case the “building” refers to neither the Don Taft University Center, the Carl DeSantis Building or the Parker Building. It refers to the experience; specifically the quality of the experience.
Leadership Expert and author Simon Sinek said in his recent TED Talk that “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” What this means is that students don’t select a university because of its classes, sports or the fact that there’s a Starbucks on campus; they are drawn to the university’s belief in providing an exemplary education and a world-class academic experience. This belief, this core and guiding principle, is what brings people in, not an $80 million building.
That belief is nice and all, but how do you accomplish this? How do you convey that belief in quality education? First, you have to believe it. Who is this “you,” though? “You” is the board of directors. “You” is the administration of the university. “You” is every member of NSU’s faculty and staff; because if you believe it, they will. Who is “they”? “They” is every student who ever has and ever will walk through NSU’s doors and think, “Where will this take me next? What does the future hold?”
Next, you have to act on this belief. Feelings are warm and fuzzy and make for great greeting cards and inspirational speeches, but if those feelings are not followed by actions, nobody will care. People are tired of hearing powerful words and inspiring messages; words mean nothing in this day and age. What really reaches people, what really communicates the authenticity of someone’s beliefs, are actions.
The backbone of any university — the very lifeblood of its existence — is its professors. There’s no getting around that. They are the main point of contact between a university and its students. Treat them that way, make them feel heard, make them feel valued. They are the quintessential component of your success as a university.
I can say, with complete conviction, that some of the most intelligent, passionate and caring people I’ve ever met have been my professors at NSU. They care about their students and want to see them succeed. They do this because they believe in the importance of providing quality education; they believe in and are passionate about what they do. Now take these people, who are each passionate about what they do, and bring them together and say to them, “We all believe the same things here. Let’s work together and do something great — something bigger than anything we could ever do on our own.” People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves — a cause, a change in the way the world works or anything that will leave their mark on history — professors are no exception. Give them that opportunity.
So, stop worrying about retention rates; they’re not your ultimate concern. Focus on providing a high-quality education to as many students as possible, and the only time you’ll hear “retention rates” will be when other universities come to you to help improve theirs. When this happens, be sure to tell them this:
Your mission — your primary goal and highest aspiration — is education. Your focus is not money or business; it’s academic excellence. Money is not the commodity of a university, knowledge is. So, if you are truly an institution with the highest regard for education, students are not your paycheck; they’re your passion.