Retention strategies


Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners

What can I do?

  • Offer students academic, social, and personal support as part of their curriculum.
  • Continuously provide students with opportunities to express how what they're learning is useful to them and others.
  • Provide students with mentoring about navigating and succeeding at university.

What is this about?

Mentoring in higher education refers to a relationship between a more experienced individual (the mentor) and a less experienced individual (the mentee) in which the mentor provides guidance, support, and advice to the mentee as they transition into higher education. Mentoring can take many forms, but typically involves the mentor sharing their knowledge, skills, and experiences with the mentee, and helping the mentee navigate the challenges and opportunities of higher education. The goal of mentoring in higher education is to help students make a successful transition into college or university and to support their academic and personal development. Mentoring can be particularly beneficial for students who are new to higher education or who may be at risk of struggling academically or socially.

Utility value in higher education refers to the perceived value or usefulness of a particular course or program of study to the student. Utility value can be influenced by a variety of factors, such as the student's interests, career goals, and personal values, as well as the relevance and applicability of the course or program to their future plans. In the context of higher education, utility value is often used as a measure of student motivation and engagement, as students who perceive a course or program as being useful and relevant to their future plans are more likely to be motivated and engaged in their learning. Utility value can be an important factor for students as they transition into higher education, as it can help them choose courses and programs that align with their interests and goals, and can help them feel more motivated and engaged in their learning.

What's the evidence say?

Retention strategies can include a number of social, personal, and academic initiatives. The key aim of these is to orientate and induct students to university.

Three areas of focus

  • Academic skills — Strategies that focus on academic skills target the specific and general skills and knowledge deemed important to academic performance (e.g., note-taking, time management, writing skills, study skills)
  • Self-management skills — Self-managements skills focus on individual/personal skills and traits and how these can be used to navigate and succeed at university (e.g., stress management, self-care, mental health interventions, self-compassion)
  • Socialisation — Socialisation strategies are usually coordinated with commencing students or at the beginning of a teaching period. These strategies aim to build a sense of belonging between students, a sense of identity with their studies, and a connection with their university.

Various ways and means

  • Intensive vs. distributed — Retention strategies can be either intensive (e.g., a socialisation strategy that is coordinated during the first week of semester) or distributed (e.g., a semester-long academic skills workshop series)
  • Mentoring — Mentoring is a process of supporting students that involves a more experienced individual (e.g., faculty staff, alumni) offering support and guidance to a less experienced one. Mentoring is traditionally delivered face-to-face and one-to-one but can also be delivered in a group setting and virtually.

Although small, there are a number of strategies that have a significant effect on student retention. One strategy — putting an at-risk student on probation — doesn't.

Of all the strategies reported in the literature, helping students to manage stress and anxiety, and engage in positive self-care (i.e., self-management strategies) had the largest effect on student retention. Academic skills and socialisation strategies were effective but to a lesser extent. That said (and perhaps unsurprisingly), academic skills interventions had a stronger effect on academic performance than self-management strategies (see Robbins et al., 2009).

Mentoring was also effective for retaining students and helping them graduate (see Sneyers & De Witte, 2018). Also, having students express how what they're learning is of value to themselves and others had a small but significant effect on retention (see Solanki et al., 2020). One strategy that was found to have a negative effect on retention (i.e., more students withdraw from their studies as a result) was academic probation. Academic probation had a small but significant effect on attrition.

  1. Focusing on academic, self-management, and socialisation,
  2. Having staff support students,
  3. Offering support to all students, and
  4. Building a stand-alone curriculum leads to greater retention.

Retention strategies help build the motivational, emotional, and social resources that help students adjust to university.

There is a considerable body of evidence and commentary related to the mechanisms that underscore retention strategies. Some of this literature discusses coping theories, while others discuss identity theories. Regardless of the point of view, the majority of the literature focuses on retention being the product of successful transition.

What's the underlying theory?

There are several theories that help explain the effects of mentoring on student outcomes in higher education. Self-determination theory suggests that mentoring can help improve student outcomes by providing a sense of relatedness and support, and by promoting a sense of autonomy and control over the mentee's learning. Social cognitive theory emphasises the role of social interactions and feedback in learning, and suggests that mentoring can help promote motivation and engagement by providing the mentee with guidance, support, and feedback on their progress.

Utility value in higher education refers to the perceived value or usefulness of a particular course or program of study to the student. According to self-determination theory, utility value can help improve student outcomes by promoting a sense of relevance and purpose, and by increasing the student's sense of autonomy and control over their learning. Social cognitive theory also emphasises the importance of relevance and motivation in learning, and suggests that students who perceive a course or program as being useful and relevant to their future plans are more likely to be motivated and engaged in their learning.

Where does the evidence come from?

We can be confident about these findings.

Four meta-analyses inform this evidence summary. The quality of these studies is mixed, but the number, the consistent findings, and the general attention to methodological rigour give us reasonable confidence that the findings are an accurate representation of reality. The main criticism of most of these meta-analyses is that they included primary studies that weren't randomised control trials and reported large heterogeneity scores, meaning that one or more variables that weren't considered contribute to the effect.


Permzadian, V., & Credé, M. (2016). Do first-year seminars improve college grades and retention? A quantitative review of their overall effectiveness and an examination of moderators of effectiveness. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 277–316.

Robbins, S. B., Oh, I., Le, H., & Button, C. (2009). Intervention effects on college performance and retention as mediated by motivational, emotional, and social control factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1163–1184.

Sneyers, E., & De Witte, K. (2018). Interventions in higher education and their effect on student success: a meta-analysis. Educational Review, 70(2), 208–228.

Solanki, S., Fitzpatrick, D., Jones, M. R., & Lee, H. (2020). Social-psychological interventions in college: A meta-analysis of effects on academic outcomes and heterogeneity by study context and treated population. Educational Research Review, 31.

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