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Using Academic Milestones and Remediation Indicators to Increase Retention

Higher education institutions, faced with declining enrollments and mounting financial pressures, are prioritizing retention and implementing targeted interventions to drive student success. With the higher education graduate rate hovering below 60%, many university chief business officers cite “retaining current students” as a top priority.

By tracking persistence data, higher education institutions can ensure they are creating an environment that supports student success and has the safeguards in place to keep students on track. The majority of institutions report tracking persistence data, citing it as effective in pinpointing student weaknesses in preparation prior to college and identifying current at-risk students. Focus on undergraduate teaching & learning and assessment of student satisfaction were both cited as 89% effective in retention efforts, and other strategies have been attributed as 61-86% effective.

Other effective and commonly used internal retention strategies include:

  • Track persistence patterns across all students
  • Identify difficult courses
  • Assess current student needs
  • Set measurable retention goals
  • Track retention rates for specific programs
  • Monitor progress in learning management system
  • Statistically predict student success Title III or V funding
  • Use financial aid targeted at retention

Building a powerful early-warning system is key to help students progress toward graduation—making persistence data tracking necessary to identify and support at-risk students. Two persistence data strategies schools can incorporate are academic milestones and on-track indicators. Establishing milestones give students clear, measurable academic checkpoints to achieve, while on-track indicators outline enrollment and behavior patterns for students to follow.


Milestones are step-by-step, academic goals for students to complete in order to graduate. Incorporating these milestones into retention strategies has yielded strong results for institutions: setting measurable goals is cited as 80% effective in increasing retention and aiding at-risk students, while closely monitoring student progress is 72% effective. Examples of milestones to monitor include:

  • Return for subsequent terms
  • Complete needed remediation
  • Begin college-level coursework in math and English
  • Earn one year of college-level credits
  • Complete general education coursework
  • Complete a community college transfer curriculum
  • Transfer from community college to a university
  • Complete a certificate or degree

On-Track Indicators

On-track indicators keep students progressing toward their degrees, and have been shown to increase a student’s chances of graduating. These indicators can be used to encourage students to enroll full-time, begin remedial or early college-level coursework, and complete 20 to 30 credit hours during their first year, depending on where they fall based on the institution’s needs assessment. Consider incorporating the following three types of indicators into your retention plan:


In this introductory stage, students are encouraged to begin remedial or early college-level coursework to spot those who will need remedial coursework in the first term.

Gateway Courses

This indicator outlines the college-level courses students should complete in their first or second year. It also encourages students to complete a college-success course or other first-year experience program to get a strong start to college.

Credit Accumulation/Academic Behaviors

This indicator sets clear academic goals to help students earn their credits on time. These goals can encourage students to:

  • Complete a high percentage of courses attempted
  • Complete 20 to 30 credits in the first year
  • Earn summer credits
  • Enroll full time and continuously, without stop-outs
  • Register on time for courses
  • Maintain an adequate GPA

Carroll University’s STAY retention program

Tracking persistence data has helped many schools improve their retention—including Carroll University, whose first-year retention increased from 75% to 80% since implementing the STAY program. Administrators of the Wisconsin university wanted to “make retention a day-to-day priority and [create] a campus-wide culture of student success,” leading to the creation of STAY—a program based on the idea that the combination of the right students at the right time with the right attention will generate the right yield. It outlines a framework for institutional leaders to identify students with the greatest impact potential. The final product is a “robust system” that generates daily reports of students who are in very critical, somewhat troubling, or satisfactory positions. Carroll University’s success highlights why tools to monitor and identify at-risk students are so vital to improving student retention.

Interested in learning more about building an early-warning system for at-risk students? Download the Research Brief: Turning the Tide on Student Retention now

Early Warning System: Student Retention

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