New RFM: Predicting Student Churn

Jim answers questions from fellow Drillers
(More questions with answers here, Work Overview here, Index of concepts here)

Topic Overview

Hi again folks, Jim Novo here.

Only attempt to control what you can actually get control of. In a massive operational system, sometimes everybody agrees they would like to improve this or that customer retention metric. But the reality is, because of the way the system is structured / managed / operated, it will be nearly impossible to improve the specific metric. Such is the case with a University. So you gotta carefully evaluate and choose what metrics you think you have a chance to control. Sound difficult? Sure it is. But difficulty hasn’t stopped us yet, has it fellow Drillers?

Q: It is clear that retention of students is a complex issue. The students’ satisfaction with the university will be partly determined by their experience during their first semester with the university. I have identified that each service encounter will contribute to the overall impression that the student has of the university. Some encounters are ‘moments of truth’ and will have a major impact on the student’s perceptions of the university.

A: Hmm, interesting.

You just got very lucky, I happen to have first-hand experience on this topic, which is very rare, as not many educational institutions are thinking this way. You should be congratulated for making this connection, though it will be a difficult battle dealing with the university administration on making changes, in my experience.

Q: I would much appreciate if you could advice me on the retention strategy and what approach the university should take to retention. Also, any ideas on management of moments of truth, particularly what enhances and detracts from the customers’ encounters with the university.

A: Please consider this old business maxim: Only attempt to control what you can actually control; otherwise you will end up not having an affect on anything.

It very well may be that the various “touchpoints” exist and can be defined, but can you reasonably control any of them? Which ones, and how will you control them? This is where you need to focus your efforts.

In my experience, a university is not the kind of place where you can undertake a “customer service education program” with employees and expect compliance at all the touchpoints. So what you have to do is pick the major points of influence where you know you can exert some control and seek to prove your case with facts and testing.

The best way to do this is with (no surprise here) data. What you need to do is take a population, e.g. “first semester students in September 2024” and then segment them into two groups – those who continued and those who did not. Then compare – what is it about the “not enrolled” group that differs from the “still enrolled” group?

I can tell you from experience some likely differences between the segments. Please be aware these are based on US experience and may not apply in your culture, but they provide good examples:

  1. The courses taken in first semester – this is very highly predictive of continuing enrollment.
  2. Within a single course, the professors teaching it. For example, you may find students taking Calculus are very likely to drop out after first semester, and will think “Calculus” is the problem. But when you look at Calculus by Professor, you find the drop out rate is concentrated around one or two professors, not the subject.
  3. Financial aid amounts and qualifications
  4. Involvement in non-academic pursuits – clubs, sports, student government, etc.

In the US, this last segment is also highly predictive of future donations to the institution, which is an important funding concern – in the language of CRM, the “Lifetime Value” of the student is positively correlated to participation in non-academic university activities.

Are any of the above “controllable”? In the US, if you value your job, you don’t even bring up any of the results of #2. This is a losing battle, the politics are thick and the issues not always clear. #3 is likewise surrounded (in the US) with a lot of uncontrollable and often legal and marketing issues.

But on #1 and #4, you may be able to actually “do something”. You can change marketing materials and “first semester required courses” to promote specific courses which tend to generate long-term students.

Once students are enrolled, you can boost the promotion of non-academic pursuits by having educational and recruitment events. A further refinement of this strategy would be to single out students enrolled in courses showing a high “first semester defection rate” and put extra effort into getting them into non-academic pursuits.

The amount of effort required to address #2 & #3 is enormous because there are huge institutional barriers to changes in these areas. Addressing #1 & #4 can be a more “under the radar” effort and not nearly as costly, either personally or monetarily.

Once you know the most critical “touchpoints” that you also can have some control over, make your changes and measure your results over a significant period of time – 2nd semester, 3rd semester, 4th etc. perhaps out to graduation – so you can see various Lifecycles.

Why do it this way? So when you can prove first semester retention rate increases, then you will get a seat at the table for going further and asking for control of other important touchpoints, and you’ll already have the longer-term data you need to work on the next steps!

Hope that helps!


Get the book at

Find Out Specifically What is in the Book

Learn Customer Marketing Concepts and Metrics (site article list)

Get the book at

Find Out Specifically What is in the Book

Learn Customer Marketing Concepts and Metrics (site article list)

Download the first 9 chapters of the Drilling Down book: PDF 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.