How to Boost Freshman Retention

By Keeping Them Socially & Emotionally Connected

Throughout most of the country, students have recently returned to or have just begun their higher education journey. But 2020 has not been a typical year given those challenges imposed by COVID-19 that we have all been facing.  Yet, perhaps one of the most vulnerable among us has been college freshman.  While freshman adjustment and retention have traditionally been a challenge, this year has added exponential hurdles.  21 percent of the people between 18-34 who have developed COVID-19 required intensive care for their symptoms. While it was believed early on that the COVID-19 pandemic primarily affected mostly elderly individuals and those with many types of comorbidity, younger individuals and students have now been identified as potential victims to the adverse reactions to the virus as well.

Because of the risks that come with COVID-19, many freshman students have dropped out of college for the semester or  may be considering doing so in the near future. Along with the standard adjustments that come with going back to school, these students must now deal with the added stress and pressures of loneliness, fear, anxiety, isolation, and depression. As a result, each student will need to determine if they should risk their own health and the health of those around them by participating in classroom, dorm or on campus events.

Many students will choose instead to isolate themselves as much as possible. This isolation can sap a person’s motivation and increase their anxiety, which can have an adverse effect on their adjustment and grades should they decide to remain at school. As a faculty member or administrator at your college or university it is imperative that you and the greater institution take the vital steps to help students remain motivated and engaged while the pandemic lingers on.

Mental health resources are more important now than ever before for students who had decided to attend school this Fall.  And, it is alarming to observe that roughly 20 percent all undergraduates have indicated that their mental health has substantially worsened in 2020 as a result of COVID-19.

This is a front burner immediate issue that requires attention!  Recommended resources your institution provides can include everything from easy access to a student counselor on up to the provision for student assistance programs. This article offers suggestions for those essential steps you can take to bolster freshman adjustment, academic performance and retention.

Provide Easy Access to Various Mental Health Resources

If you want freshman students to remain at school, it is important to provide them with easy access to mental health resources. It is not enough for professors and other faculty members to be supportive of students. Such support must be accompanied by appropriate mental health resources that are easily accessible 24/7.

At the very least, your institution should be able to provide students with a list of smartphone applications that they can download when they need to reduce their stress and anxiety. Some effective mental health applications include Nod, Ten Percent Happier, and Breathe2Relax, all of which are available on iOS and Android devices.

Be Proactive in Providing Support for the Mental Health of Your Students

The current pandemic is trying for everyone and can be particularly burdensome for students who are needing to juggle their school responsibilities, a social life, and their efforts to remain healthy. One step that you can take is to provide students with tele- mental health services, which gives students the opportunity to easily seek treatment and advice while attending school.

During class, make sure that you emphasize the importance of students to apply self-care and to request help when necessary. If any of your students are displaying signs of worsening mental health, check in on them when you can. The more notable signs of poor mental health include:

  • Not responding to student or teacher outreach
  • Making regular statements that indicate stress or feelings of anxiety
  • Asking for absences on a regular basis
  • Missing assignments, classes, or important tests

Use the VAR Technique of Communication

The VAR technique of communication refers to validate, appreciate, and refer. This form of communication could be integral towards boosting freshman retention this semester. You can use this technique in person or by text. When speaking with students, make sure that you validate their concerns, show appreciation for what they shared with you, and refer them to further mental health resources that can help them reduce their stress and anxiety.

While practicing this technique, do not attempt to fix the concerns they are having. It is also essential that you do not try to ease their concerns by reducing the importance of them or by suggesting that their concerns “aren’t that bad”. The level, depth and accessibility of mental health resources that your students have access to will go a long way in attacking the potentially destructive negative feelings that can so deeply burden them.

Keep in Mind That Your Self-Care Is Important

While attention to your students is important, so too is your own mental health.  Clearly, it is vital that you practice self-care as well. It will be difficult for you to provide your students with the support that they need if you do not take care of your own state of mind and body.

Implement In-Class Support Groups

A great way to keep your students socially connected is by implementing support groups that are held during class. Consider having students create small groups of 3-4 people. These groups can study lessons together and provide each other with emotional support while the semester is ongoing. Students should not be more isolated than needed from others (directly or virtually). This isolation only serves to enhance the negative thoughts that most students are likely already experiencing. Connection is a great way to keep anxiety and stress at bay.

Reach Out Virtually

If your students have the option to take classes online, make sure that you reach out virtually whenever possible. Those students who decide to take online classes should still have access to the faculty members at your institution. There are plenty of video conferencing tools that you can use to reach out virtually to your students, which include everything from Skype to Zoom.

Focus on Technology to Keep Students Socially Connected

Another effective method that you can use to increase the connection among students is to focus on technology. Your institution should have been spending some of the summer months strengthening the technology and IT support system for the Fall semester. Online access should be available for most of the mental health resources and academic support resources that are available on campus. Engagement among students can be increased with academic success workshops.

When you are set to hold club meetings, advisement appointments, and counseling with students, consider utilizing audio and video conferencing tools. To make sure that students are connecting with other classmates, suggest virtual movie nights and game nights. It is important to understand that students do not need to put themselves at risk by going to parties or tailgating if they want to spend time with friends.

With these tips and suggestions, you should be able to boost freshman engagement and retention.  Attention needs to focus on making sure that students are not completely isolated from other students and faculty members at your institution. When you create an ecosystem of support that keeps stress and anxiety within control, your students will be more likely to remain at school throughout the Fall semester… and beyond.

Think About Being Ahead of the Curve – A Call to Action…

While the above suggestions can prove to be helpful, proactive approaches to dealing with the existing challenges that COVID-19 has escalated include the demand for improved and enhanced access to 24/7 in-depth mental health and daily living support.  Institutions need to recognize that your on-campus resources are likely to require additional support in order to be effective.  NOW, MORE THAN EVER, you should consider partnering your internal resources with external Student Assistance support.

In 2020, protecting and supporting your student’s mental health is simply too big of a challenge to address alone!

Author - Dr. Joel R. Gecht
Chief Clinical & Consulting Advisor
Student Life Assistance
AllOne Health’s IMPACT Student Life Assistance enhances, does not replace, your existing programs and serves as an extension of your existing website and campus counseling resources.
Scroll Back to Top
Website Terms & Use Policy