SEM as the Tool for Effective Retention Planning


Too often, higher education professionals look to Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) simply as a recruitment plan. While this perspective overlooks the planning and organizational framework supporting effective SEM work, it also overlooks SEM’s role with successful retention planning. 

“The core mission of any college and university is academic and student success”, shares Dr. Wayne Sigler in his recent book SEM Core Concepts:  Building Blocks for Institutional and Student Success (2017). Sigler continues to state that “best practice SEM leaders understand that recruitment, retention and graduation are equally important” (p. 12-13). The true nature of SEM is intended to encompass the full student lifecycle, from activities spanning recruitment through graduation (Bontrager, 2004). Given the increasing attention colleges and universities are giving to student success strategies, as well as state-level funding formulas incentivizing this work, this article briefly addresses how SEM can serve as the cornerstone for effective retention planning and provides an overview of current retention strategies. 

SEM and Retention Planning

In the 2012 book, Strategic Enrollment Management:  Transforming Higher Education, Dr. Bob Bontrager and Dr. Tom Green brought together the core concepts of SEM to offer the SEM process, organizational, and planning frameworks.  While process and organizational structures will vary from institution to institution, the planning framework elements can serve as the foundation by which institutions can develop a successful retention plan.  Primary considerations of the SEM Planning Framework and its connection to retention planning include:

  • Strategic Plan Connection:  As practitioners charged with developing an institutional retention plan, it is critical to understand how an institution defines retention (Wild and Ebbers, 2002). Doing so involves a thoughtful analysis of institutional mission, strategic plan, student challenges, and current internal and external pressures. Such an analysis will determine where the institution needs to focus its retention work, albeit first-term retention, first-year retention, and credential completion, among numerous other considerations.
  • Key Enrollment Indicators:  Once a retention definition is understood, the next step is to define key enrollment indicators (KEI) associated with that definition which identify high-level categories such as student attributes (e.g., major, demographic characteristics, online learners), institutional attributes (e.g., program capacity), external factors (e.g., funding mechanisms, economic trends), and performance metrics (e.g., course completion, first-term and first-year retention, graduation rates).  
  • Data and Retention Goals:  The connection between KEIs and retention goals is tightly connected as institutions must first analyze its data as a means of developing practical goals. Methods for doings so include internal data, external data, and environmental scanning. From this analysis, retention leaders can best determine goals that are realistic and resonate with the institutional mission and strategic plan.
  • Campus Infrastructure:  Once retention goals are set, good retention planning calls for evaluating whether the institution’s programs, services, and talent align with desired goals. In some cases, they do and work can move to the next stage. If strong alignment is missing, the institution must either revisit its goals or make the needed changes to enable goal fulfillment.
  • Strategies and Tactics:  While it is tempting to jump directly to the activities supporting retention, doing so without effective planning means the institution may not achieve its desired outcomes.  Once data-informed goals are set, strategies to achieve those goals naturally emerge.

Retention Strategies

The volume of potential retention strategies are substantial, ranging from programs and services that have applicability across all student types or those that are laser-focused towards specific populations. A list of potential retention strategies follows.  A word of caution: Institutions are encouraged to avoid the “shiny object” syndrome and instead, research the effectiveness of potential strategies as they relate to institutional retention goals, review best practices as implemented at peer and non-peer institutions, and implement only those strategies for which time and fiscal resources allow.  

Planning for Success:  Pre-Enrollment Retention Strategies
  • Early registration deadlines
  • Requiring an academic plan prior to first term
  • Developmental math and writing redesign, including directed-self placement, short-term intensive courses focused on specific skills, and co-registration in multiple levels
  • New student orientation, focused on building a connection to the institution and opportunities for engagement, as well as student success strategies
  • Summer bridge programs designed to bolster a student’s confidence, advance their writing and math skills, and define academic and career plans.
Initiating and Sustaining Success:  Progression Strategies
  • First-year experience programs, which typically include mandatory orientation, advising, and a first-year seminar course
  • Learning communities which bring together students in a cohort-based format organized around a specific topic, student characteristic, or major 
  • Early alert system, which allows the institution to define at which points students are most likely to struggle, implements strategies to identify those students, and develops interventions supporting the student
  • Diversity and inclusion centers and programs
  • Career planning and coaching
  • Academic advising and planning
  • Interventions targeted towards students on academic probation, including enrollment in a specifically-designed student success course, academic plan to include some level of assistance tailored to the student’s situation, assignment to specialized advisors, and/or participation in a study skills workshop.
  • Peer mentoring programs, including mentors playing a role in orientation, advising, and classroom tutoring
  • Augmented instruction:  Similar to supplemental instruction but is linked specifically to math or writing courses.
  • Career engagement and exploration through service learning, work-integrated learning, and undergraduate research 
Getting to the Finish Line:  Completion Strategies 
  • Reverse transfer:  Automatically awards a community college transfer degree after a student transfers to the university; completed using the university degree audit system.
  • Career pathways or stacked credentials:  Provides a credential upon completion of a specific set of courses within the degree; typically built around proficiency areas (e.g., diversity and inclusion) or employable skill.
  • Automatically awarding certificates and degrees

Ultimately, there is no “one-size fits all” model for successful student retention strategies. However, thoughtful attention to a solid planning framework will ground an institution in a shared definition and provide the foundation for creating successful, student-centric retention programs that better the institution and more importantly, better the student experience. 


Bontrager, B. (2004, October). SEM 102: Developing your SEM plan. Presentation at the annual meeting of Oregon Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, Bend, OR.

Bontrager, B., and Green, T. (2012). A structure for SEM planning. In B. Bontrager, D. Ingersoll, and R. Ingersoll (Eds.), Strategic Enrollment Management:  Transforming Higher Education (pp. 273 – 284). Washington, DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Sigler, W. (2017). SEM core concepts: Building blocks for institutional success. Washington, DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Wild, L. and Ebbers, L. (2002). Rethinking student retention in community colleges. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 26(6), 503 -519.

By Dr. Alicia Moore, AACRAO Senior Consultant and Dean of Student and Enrollment Services at Central Oregon Community College.  

Let AACRAO Consulting help you develop and implement successful retention strategies. Contact us today.  Do you have questions for the author?  Contact her through AACRAO Consulting at or 202-355-1056.   

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