Enrolling a student doesn’t guarantee that your college or university will secure tuition for the full length of their academic program.
US colleges and universities lost around 39 million learners in 2020 due to stop-outs—students who enrolled but never graduated or earned any other credential. Nearly one in three undergraduate students, of all institution types, now stop out, with the rate among first-time, full-time freshmen swelling to 39% at two-year colleges.
In other words, you and your institution cannot afford to ignore stop-outs.
But there’s good news too. With the right communication and support, you can guide many of these learners toward re-enrollment (and ultimately, degree attainment), recouping lost revenue and boosting your institution’s reputation along the way.
Before we dive into how you can smartly reach back out to stop-outs and communicate the support they need, let’s examine why learners stop taking classes in the first place.
7 Reasons Students Stop Out
Laziness and disinterest rarely account for a student’s departure. Numerous studies show that stop-outs remain motivated and interested in earning a credential—but over time, whether it’s during their first semester or their seventh, they encounter barriers that seem insurmountable.
Here are some of those most common barriers.
1. Tuitions, textbooks and other essential fees are too high.
A survey of more than 27,000 former students at Florida community college found that 53% left their institutions due to high tuition, and an additional 25% cited the cost of textbooks.
In another study, 59% of students who stopped-out during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic say they did so because of these costs.
2. Course schedules and other academic requirements don’t fit around students’ personal obligations.
More than one-third of drop-outs cited family responsibilities, such as childcare and eldercare as reasons for not continuing their education. Additionally, 24% of respondents brought up conflicts with their work schedules.
3. Students lack key information about credential or degree requirements.
About 24% of stop-outs in the community college study say they left, in part, because they lacked guidance as to which courses to take next.
4. Students lack cultural capital.
Nearly one in three students today identify as first-generation learners. Yet, these students are almost three times as likely to withdraw from higher ed programs than their peers whose parents earned bachelor degrees.
Cultural capital—or rather, lack thereof—may help explain at least some of this gap.
As Margaret Tippett wrote in What to Expect When You’re Expected: Uncovering the Role of Cultural Capital in College Success:
“The preliminary data suggest that the first-year college students’ experience is shaped by their own parents’ experience and familiarity with the academic and social aspects of college life. The findings from this study point to the need for counseling directed towards first-year students about behaviors that can foster achievement and confidence in college, and accessibility to skill toolkits that will equip first-generation college students to thrive in an environment with which their parents have had limited exposure.”
5. Health emergencies require students to take time off—and they don’t come back.
More than 20% of stop-ups cited their personal health as reasons for taking time off, which—among many learners—often means they’ll never re-enroll. Older students are more likely than traditional-age leaders to stop-out because of health emergencies.
6. Mental health challenges make completion too difficult.
In 2021, 76% of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree reported emotional stress as a reason why they considered stopping out.
Additionally, in 2020, 39% of college students responding to University of Michigan researchers reported experiencing some form of depression, and 34% reported experiencing anxiety.
7. Students don't feel socially connected to their institutions.
In a 2021 joint study between the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and StraighterLine, 30% of recent stop-outs cited “not the right fit” as a primary reason for departing from their institutions.
“It could be that social element—that they were not happy with the support or the friendships or the relationships,” said Jim Fong, UPCEA’s chief research officer.
How Conversational Text Messaging Supports Students
Directed communication allows learners to see how they can overcome barriers. By communicating with students and connecting them to the right support services, you’ll empower learning to develop solutions in partnership with their institution, rather than leaving the onus on students to complete complex problem-solving research all on their own.
Communicating with stop outs should involve five steps:
- Engage—Connect with students via the channel they prefer most. For the vast majority of modern learners, that means text messaging.
- Automate—Develop accurate responses that you can send quickly and easily to common questions, saving staff time while scaling up your outreach.
- Capture—Track trending concerns and challenges to better understand your student’s needs and perfect your responses.
- Guide—Take students through the re-enrollment process, step by step.
- Escalate—Direct students to the right office and team member to answer pressing questions.
Intergrate These 5 Steps into Your Texting Strategy
The Modern Campus Signal Vine Playbook for Stop Outs is the only purpose-built conversational messaging campaign to help institutions disrupt enrollment decline.
How Texting Helps You Dig Deeper
If you want to reach modern learners, about anything, turn to texting. Email has an average open rate of just 20%, but the open rate for texts is more than 98%. And the great majority of students find messaging from their colleges or universities motivating; 86% of students say that texts have prompted them to successfully complete a task.
These tasks can be steps toward re-enrollment.
As a result of a texting campaign focused on stop-outs, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College re-enrolled 336 former students–all of whom weren’t responding to any other form of communication, such as email, phone calls and social media posts.
Key to the college’s success was its focus on nudging students, not nagging them. As explained in Nudging by Text Best Practices:
Nudging is broadly defined as “coaxing or gently encouraging someone to do something.” In the context of education, nudging is specific communication that helps move a student through their educational journey.
Nudging students can start with genuine curiosity, with staff seeking to uncover exactly why a student has stopped out. If, for example, a text recipient tells you that they can no longer afford classes, ask why. Perhaps they have new childcare expenses, lost their campus job or financial aid availability, or were unprepared for the high costs of textbooks.
Understanding a students’ unique challenge(s) will help you customize your advice and support. Rather than merely telling the students to “talk to financial aid”, you can direct them to specific forms, suggest a scholarship program or even mention a student job available in your office. You ease them through the process, revealing new information and showing that solutions are available,
An example of this process in action comes from Brian Kathman, founder of Modern Campus Signal Vine, in writing for Forbes:
“When we know the “real why,” we can point each student to the resource that best supports them. One of the more interesting exchanges that I have heard was with a student who wasn’t coming back for money reasons. But when told to “tell me more,” she said, “I lost my car insurance, and I can’t make it to campus.” The advisor followed up with, “You are eligible to take classes online,” and the student responded, “I don’t think my financial aid covers online classes.” The advisor was able to clarify the heart of the matter: “Yes, online classes are covered by financial aid, and I can help you get registered, and we can figure out how to get you supported.”
That exchange took less than 20 minutes. Thanks to a simple text outreach, the student re-enrolled and continued her journey toward degree attainment.
Meet the Modern Campus Signal Vine Playbook for Stop Outs
Seamlessly blend one-to-one text messaging with automated nudges and responses to elevate campus communication and re-enroll students who have stopped out.