A Tale of Retention: Staff or Students?
Written By: Aaron Worley
Special Contributions from: Andrea Skimbo & Marissa McIntyre – Oklahoma State University
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” But what if you have found what you love to do and unfortunately you struggle financially, living pay check to pay check? If you’re in this situation, you can’t help but wonder if it’s time for a career change or to leave your current job in search of higher pay. Within the business world, employee turnover is one of the largest costs, yet it’s also one of the most unknown costs. It’s not easy to hire the right employees and keep them. The current economic circumstances are forcing individuals to take on positions just for the sake of survival in an effort to keep their heads above water in order to pay the bills as a result of today’s changing economy and the competitive business environment. Employers, organizations and companies should be concerned about the costs of employee turnover and how it will affect the bottom line, which in this case is student retention.
I’ve been working in my career field for 8 years and love what I do. I’m an academic advisor within the School of Business at a large university and have been here almost a year. There are currently 7 full-time advisors in the office. In the time I’ve been here, there have been 3 turnovers (myself included). According to a colleague who has been here 8 years, she has seen 11 advisor changes. For the sake of simple math, we’ll call it on average, 1 turnover a year within the office. A student’s relationship with their academic advisor is one of the most essential and influential relationships that they can form during their time at college. Academic advisors deal with issues concerning academics, careers, and a student’s personal life.
Retention is more cost effective to address than recruitment which can cost as little as 1/5 the cost of recruiting a new student. If a school is trying to improve its bottom line, it’s easier to focus on retention. Advising programs that structure, recruit, train and incentivize outstanding advisors have greater success rates than those that are simply voluntary. Good advising improves retention by 25% over “poor advising” and 40% over no advising (Cuseo, 2003).
According to studentrention.org, the challenge of student retention and persistence is complex. Not all students are alike, nor are institutions. Resources play a huge part in the ability of a campus to provide the support services necessary to engage and save students. Many students come to college for the first time psychologically unprepared to navigate the murky waters of higher education.
Retention has always been an important issue on college campuses, but as of recently, many colleges and universities are specifically focusing their efforts on student persistence and retention rates in order to maintain the student body. Student retention is vital for a number of reasons; having an educated workforce increases the economy, the success of the colleges and universities, as well as the development of the population as individuals. A student will continue to visit academic advisors, career services, financial aid, and residential Life or Greek offices during their entire college career. For a student to feel connected, understood and valued, it would be essential for that student to feel a connection to staff in those offices. Instead of visiting an unknown face, they could return to someone who is familiar in order to register for classes, draft a resume, sign up for housing or file paperwork. This mentoring relationship has the possibility to completely change a student’s time in college; continued contact with an advisor can increase student persistence, retention, and success.
As in any venture, there is a cost related to loss. In 2002, a study conducted for the Lumina for Education Foundation looked at retention practices at 19 public and private institutions. The survey expected to find that schools with high graduation rates had dedicated staff, were committed to retaining students, and utilized tried-and-true teaching and learning strategies that make a difference in the learning atmosphere and social climate of the institution. However, the study revealed that resources trumped all other factors. Regardless of the factors, schools with money were able to secure additional resources as necessary, could implement almost any strategy they wanted to, and perhaps more importantly, were able to attract more qualified and competitive students (Ashby, 2003).
Changing practice on a postsecondary campus is always challenging, and the bigger the campus, the larger the challenge. Changing the quantity of resources is a substantially greater challenge. As Tinto (1993) and others have suggested, students’ “social integration” with the institution is an important factor in their ability to persist. The role of the student service offices has evolved to deal with many of the issues facing students on campus. The atmosphere and climate of the university reflected by how the institution treats and supports students and by the positive nature of peer relations on campus, is important to the self-esteem and confidence a student generates. Therefore, the campus must focus on developing an atmosphere that is supportive and safe, while offering a high level of institutional commitment, comprehensive services, strong faculty support, and proactive in retaining dedicated professional staff (Clewell and Ficklen, 1986).
The simple reality is that retention fuels a very real competitive advantage and colleges must proactively address the causes of turnover to improve their competitiveness in recruitment efforts. Effective colleges can significantly lower turnover through better recruitment efforts, making certain managers have a clear sense of department direction and by making sure workers have the tools they need to properly handle their jobs. Small steps can improve retention and competitiveness. Advising runs the risk of being perceived as a supplemental, low-status, and low-priority activity by college administrators because it typically does not carry the same professorial status and resume-building value as conducting research, acquiring grants, presenting papers at professional conferences, or engaging in off-campus consulting (Cuseo, 2003).
Employees most commonly leave because they feel undervalued, especially higher education where the professional staff within the student service offices that students commonly interact with are often well educated (Master’s degrees or above) and well trained (through professional development and yearly departmental training) but are paid minimal salaries (often just above entry level pay) which lead to positions being vacated frequently in search of higher pay for the same work. A sense that the department is not as invested in the individual as the individual is invested in the organization is discouraging for advisors. Employers must be on the lookout for these conflicts, and implement employee retention best practices if they want to retain quality employees.
According to studies published by the Carey School of Business at Arizona State University (ASU), for example, increasing worker wages is one way to prevent turnover. The research indicated that when workers were given a 15 percent wage increase, the volume of corresponding turnovers decreased by 13 percent. Also according to the study, most employers prefer to let someone go rather than incur a 15 percent wage increase. Further evidence comes from Creamer & Scott (2000), reaching the following conclusion: “The failure of most institutions to conduct systematic evaluations of advisors is explained by a number of factors. The most potent reason, however, is probably that the traditional reward structure often blocks the ability to reward professional staffs that are genuinely committed to advising in the form of compensation. Research clearly suggests that there is a positive relationship between utilization of campus-support services and persistence to program or degree completion (Churchill & Iwai, 1981; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).
To establish a high degree of commitment to the advising process, university and college administrators must become cognizant not only of the educational value of advising but of the role advising plays in the retention of students. The evidence should be used as a position to persuade high-level administrators the power of effective academic advisement for student retention and institutional revenue. It can also be used in advisor development programs; to motivate and validate the work of veteran advisors, and in advisor-orientation programs; to inspire and energize new advisors (Wyckoff, 1999).
While job turnover is normal and unavoidable in the course of conducting business today, employee turnover has some obvious costs associated with it, including recruitment, training and salary. However, every time an employee leaves, there are a variety of hidden costs you might not have considered:
- Exit costs
- Compensation & benefits while training
- Lost productivity
- Student (customer) dissatisfaction
- Administrative costs
Many of the costs of employee turnover are indirect, but the key to minimizing employee turnover, and thereby saving the organization quite a lot of money, is very direct. Employee retention is the key to reducing employee turnover, theoretically increasing student attrition. That might sound obvious, but employee retention is a difficult task.
Multitudes of research has determined that to replace a typical employee lost to turnover costs an employer, on average, 150 percent of that person’s base salary. In other words, someone making $30,000 a year will likely cost an employer between $45,000 and $60,000 replacing them because the organization failed to take adequate steps to keep them. Retaining someone through a wage increase or through some other proactive investment worth the same amount, can result in higher retention levels and deliver a powerful return on the dollar (Deeds, 2012).
The bottom line is obvious. Retaining workers by avoiding turnovers pays huge dividends. Student services professionals know that building relationships with students goes a long way in being able to better serve each student while keeping him or her involved with campus (leading directly to retention). Many advisors have extensive experience in a variety of areas including teaching, mentoring, guidance, and leadership training. In each role, it’s important for the advisors to connect with students to be able to better understand their needs and assist them. Those connections take time. Advisors are unable to build relationships with students if they are to vacate positions frequently in search of higher pay.
In order to help improve retention, college offices need to ensure that students have information regarding services available to them such as academic, career counseling, financial aid, and social support services without the revolving door of new advisors each year. Only when sufficient institutional attention and resources are devoted to securing each of these foundational features of program development will the quest for quality academic advisement be successful, and its potential for promoting student retention be fulfilled (The Education Trust, 2003).
I truly believe that student retention is tied to professional staff retention because it helps students connect to the university through relationships. In these times of financial cut backs, student retention, persistence, and success will continue to be a major emphasis on our college campuses. Any retention effort must clearly recognize the value of academic advising to the success of students and the necessity that advising becomes a central part of a collaborative campus-wide focus on the success of our students. I have a strong feeling college professional staff would feel more valued, appreciated, and likely to commit more time to their positions if salary was more competitive. But then again, if the department prefers the cost of turnover and yearly advisor shuffle, that’s their prerogative.
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Creamer, E. C., & Scott, D. W. (2000). Assessing individual advisor effectiveness. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & Associates, Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 339-348). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of attrition (2nd ed.) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Wyckoff, S. C. (1999). The academic advising process in higher education: History, research, and improvement. Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education, 13(1), pp. 1-3