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Want to improve fall persistence? Reform your school’s registration holds

April 27, 2020

Pandemic uncertainties are translating to lower registration rates for continuing students

As fall registration progresses, most schools are seeing their continuing-student registrations lagging compared to where they were at this same point last year. Some students are uncertain of what their personal and financial lives will look like come September. Others have expressed reluctance to return to a virtual campus, instead preferring to sit out the semester if fall courses will be online.

It seems certain that registration numbers will fluctuate throughout the summer as social distancing begins to relax (or not). Unfortunately, the longer a student stays unregistered, the less likely it is that they will eventually return. Fortunately, there are some key things your college or university can do now to pull forward registration while also making it easier to bring back the “wait-and-see students” once they decide to return.

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Reforming registration holds in the lockdown era

One of these biggest immediate opportunities is a broad reform of registration holds. In the best of times, schools lose several percentage points of persistence simply because of administrative barriers that discourage students from registering. We also have reason to believe that excessive registration holds exacerbate equity gaps.

These are far from the best of times and many schools are now taking a closer look at their hold policies. Some have told us that these are changes they’ve wanted to make for a long time but lacked the urgency or political backing to push through. Below you will find a summary of the guidance we’ve gathered from Navigate partners that have already taken steps to address and alleviate unnecessarily burdensome registration holds.

Audit your registration barriers

An obvious first step is to audit all the different reasons you have for putting a student on hold. This is something that many senior leaders have not thought much about in the past – but when they look, they typically find 40 to 80 different ways their students can be prevented from registering. Some of these holds serve good purposes, while others are unnecessary impediments. For those of you looking at this for the first time, you will likely uncover many of the “usual suspects” for putting a student on hold:

  • Student accounts / Bursar
  • Advising requirements
  • Financial aid paperwork
  • Academic department requirements
  • Residential life policies
  • Parking fines
  • Library fines
  • Student conduct violations

Address holds due to student account balances

Of these, the two that are getting the most attention right now are advising holds and student accounts, with the majority of heavy lifting happening around financial holds. We are seeing three strategies emerge:

1. Temporarily lift registration holds on all balances

A few schools moved aggressively at the onset on the pandemic to temporarily lift registration holds on all balances, regardless of amount, with the intent of reapplying the holds once registration closes. While this solves the immediate problem, some I have spoken with are concerned that such a move will allow students get deeper into debt without the ability to pay it back. Such a decision should only be made after careful deliberation and evaluation of your students’ financial circumstances.

2. Raise student account thresholds

It’s more common to see schools raising their student account thresholds up to $1,000 or more, allowing students with small balances to get registered. We recommend pulling a list of your outstanding account balances to explore the impact of raising thresholds by different levels.

3. Establish or expand emergency grant programs

Still other schools are establishing or expanding their emergency grant programs to cover small balances that exceed bursar threshold limits. CARES Act funds must be passed through to students and cannot be applied directly by an institution to student balances incurred prior to the pandemic. Emergency grants give colleges and universities more flexibility.  Schools have been building out emergency funds through alumni fundraising campaigns and by repurposing funds that had been set aside for spring events that cancelled.

Address holds due to advising and other sources

For advising holds, schools that require mandatory advising appointments prior to registration are simply waiving this policy for some or all their students. This is critical in a stay-at-home environment where students may not be able to connect with an advisor for their usual registration appointment.

Holds from sources other than student accounts or advising should not be overlooked, although they tend to affect smaller numbers of students. These holds are often applied by offices and departments outside of the administrative core as one of the few tools they have to encouraging student compliance with their objectives and policies. We recommend you form a small committee to review holds and negotiate with the relevant office to remove or suspend those that no longer serve a purpose in this environment. It can be helpful to include your CFO in meetings that involve small balances such as library and parking fines.

Prepare for summer reenrollment campaigns

In the coming weeks, campus leadership will shift their attention from enrolling admitted students to reenrolling continuing students. If your institution is a Navigate partner, your Strategic Leader will work with you to help run reenrollment campaigns through Navigate. These retention efforts will be more important than ever in 2020 and 2021. But without evaluating your holds policies, your attempts to reenroll students will run into the brick wall of registration holds, again and again. By eliminating these barriers, you can make it easier for them to decide to come back in the fall and ultimately make much needed reforms that will leave your campus better equipped to retain students in the long run.

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