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How to Solve Your Student Retention Problem Using Strengths

How to Solve Your Student Retention Problem Using Strengths

by Janet Gibbon

Story Highlights

  • 41% of students considered stopping their coursework in the prior six months
  • Strengths development and teacher involvement boost engagement by as much as 30x
  • Only 47% of Gen. Z is thriving in their lives, but CliftonStrengths helps

Many universities across the country are struggling with student retention. In fact, only 67% of first-year students in the fall of 2021 persisted at their institution into the fall of 2022.1

Additionally, a 2022 study from Gallup and Lumina Foundation found that 41% of enrolled students considered stopping their coursework at some point in the prior six months.

College retention rates are not the only concerning numbers -- during the spring 2023 semester, a majority of students reported they felt stress (66%) and worry (51%) during much of the previous day. Thirty-six percent of students said they felt sadness during a lot of the previous day.

The stop-out rate is alarming. And schools try many different approaches to retain students (e.g., investing in more student-focused technology, building more flexible schedules and launching on-campus content marketing campaigns).

The problem is that none of these strategies address one of the most important factors of the student experience: student engagement.


There are many reasons students drop out or don’t reenroll. But we know that when students are engaged, they are more likely to have an emotional connection to their school, classmates and professors. That connection is powerful: Student engagement is directly correlated with academic success, higher wellbeing and positive postgraduation outcomes.

Gallup has identified four ways that universities are bolstering student engagement on campus by incorporating a strengths-based culture.

1. Help Students Discover What They Do Best

Gallup found that students who strongly agreed that their school is committed to building the strengths of each student and that they had at least one teacher who makes them excited about the future were 30 times more likely to be emotionally engaged.

The clarity and confidence that accompanies strengths helps students feel connected to peers, professors and their school. And it imbues a sense of meaning and purpose that motivates them to persist through challenges.

When students aim their strengths at subjects, projects and goals they are passionate about, it invigorates them, making them more focused, persistent and committed.

Student engagement is directly correlated with academic success, higher wellbeing and positive postgraduation outcomes.

Administering the CliftonStrengths assessment to your first-year students is a great start -- but what you do after students take the assessment will determine how influential and sustainable your strengths-based culture is. Gallup recommends connecting your strengths-based approach to your mission and purpose and aiming it at key outcomes you hope to achieve. Ask yourself: What are you bolstering this initiative around? How will you involve faculty, staff and students?

A large strengths initiative is exciting. However, it takes time to build the appropriate champions, road map and buy-in across campus. Gallup works with universities of all sizes to build and incorporate a customized strengths-based approach that honors the university’s culture, climate and desired outcomes. This involves strategic consultative partnership, learning and analysis to build a framework that allows for strengths to thrive beyond the first-year experience and create a transformative experience for faculty, staff and students.

2. Engage Educators to Create Engaged Students

Engaged faculty and staff are the foundation for a thriving strengths-based university -- they weave strengths into students’ everyday experiences on campus. Without this foundation, a strengths-based approach can fall flat.

Gallup research has found that highly engaged educators and staff members produce more engaged and emotionally attached students with lower levels of absenteeism, greater academic achievement and higher percentages of on-time completion.

Through our partnership with universities integrating CliftonStrengths into the student experience, Gallup has found that a strengths-based approach is most effective when everyone on campus -- including faculty and staff -- is involved.

It starts with faculty and staff discovering their strengths. Beyond that, leaders need to give educators the opportunity to do what they do best every day and meet basic workplace needs like setting clear expectations, encouraging educators’ development and giving recognition.

3. Promote Strengths-Based Connections on Campus

During the spring 2023 semester, 39% of U.S. college students reported feeling loneliness during a lot of the previous day.

A sense of belonging and support can help students counteract the stress and anxiety that can come from a new environment, large course loads and a hectic schedule. One way for students to begin building connections with others at the university is to give them opportunities to understand the value of their similarities and differences, and to humanize their shared student experiences, with CliftonStrengths.

Gallup has found that a strengths-based approach is most effective when everyone on campus -- including faculty and staff -- is involved.

Talking about your strengths with others and building positive relationships across campus have meaningful influences on students’ experiences. For example, a study of students at the University of Minnesota found that first-year students who had a strengths-based advising conversation (i.e., an advisor incorporated discussions about the student’s strengths) were 1.53 times more likely than students who did not to return for their second year of school.2

Additionally, the Gallup-Purdue Index found that one of the six experiences that directly correlate to a student’s persistence at their institution and ability to graduate in four years is whether professors care about them as a person.

4. Make the Connection to Life After School

A key to student retention and persistence is reiterating the value of the academic experience and how it will translate to future success. Not all students see a clear connection between their time in college and their future after graduation. In 2022, 24% of enrolled bachelor’s degree students said they considered stopping out because they didn’t believe a degree would help them achieve their personal or career goals.

Strengths allows students to better understand what they are naturally good at, providing additional clarity and guidance on how they might use their talents to excel in the classroom right now -- and in the workforce in the future.


When students experience using their unique strengths to accomplish goals and contribute to group projects and extracurricular activities, it helps them connect how they’ll use their strengths in their future career.

Strengths also gives students a better understanding of how to present themselves during job interviews. In addition to providing a greater sense of confidence and empowerment, strengths provides an easy and accessible way for students to describe their talents and be memorably authentic.

Schools that prioritize strengths development lay the groundwork for students’ success after graduation. Graduates who say their institution was passionate about the long-term success of its students are 2.4 times more likely to be engaged in their job and 8.1 times more likely to be emotionally attached to their alma mater.3

Boost the Outcomes That Matter Most

Only 47% of Generation Z are thriving in their lives, which means it’s never been more important to focus on the student experience. College is a formative time for students. They are learning about themselves and determining what they want their life to look like. When schools prioritize students’ strengths-based development and engagement with school, they are helping students navigate this challenging and exciting time.

A strengths-based approach to student engagement helps students understand what they do best -- and provides a language for them to talk confidently about themselves to peers, teachers and, eventually, hiring managers. It also provides a sense of belonging and purpose, allowing students to remain committed to and involved in their university for the duration of their student experience.

More than that, though, strengths is the engine that education leaders can use to boost the outcomes that matter most to them and drive student engagement. It is a framework for establishing student touchpoints, resources and support that connect students to their university in a meaningful way.

Student engagement isn’t just a way to ensure students don’t leave your school -- it is the way to ensure they thrive personally, academically, and in their future career and beyond.

Give your students the tools to succeed at your institution and everywhere else:


Janet Gibbon is a K-12 Consultant for Gallup Education.

Kyle Christensen contributed to this article.

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