Poker Chips to Gain Valuable Retention Data? No, really.

Poker Chips to Gain Valuable Retention Data? No, really.

Emily Siegel

Associate Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Data-driven decisions.

It’s the popular buzz-phrase on college campuses these days.

We all know it’s important, but the reality is that it is easier said than done - especially when it comes to student retention. Sure, a campus can easily collect demographic, academic, and financial information on students who stay and those who leave, but isn’t there more to the story?


As the former champion for all-things retention at a small liberal arts school, I found myself having conversations with nearly everyone about why students stay and why they leave - not just our institution, but any institution. For many, the answer was simple – students left because they couldn’t afford to stay or there were personal reasons drawing them away.

While I never doubted these reasons contained an element of truth, I knew we had more digging to do. So, in an effort to better understand why students left, we instituted an exit interview process.

But, what exactly would the interview entail? And, how could we best capture the information learned from these interviews?

I was fortunate to have a great network of colleagues in the region that supported each other. And when we set out to create an exit interview process, the group shared some great resources including one of the most valuable – The 10-Chip Exercise.

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before! It offered an easy, and somewhat “fun” way for students to give feedback on their experience at the institution and reason(s) for departure. And even better, it offered a way for us to capture data quantitatively, not just qualitatively.

How it works. Students are given a “game board.” The game board consists of several categories that may influence a student’s decision to stay or leave an institution, such as:

• Personal Reasons • Financial Reasons • Medical/Health Reasons • Campus Climate • Social Atmosphere • Campus Safety • Campus Location • Job Opportunity • Faculty & Staff • Major or Program Not Offered • Academic Work Too Challenging • Academic Work Not Challenging Enough • Athletic Reasons • Roommate Issues • Housing Accommodations/Options • Academic Advising • Other

Distribute the Chips. Students are then given 10 poker chips with the instructions to distribute them amongst the reasons most influencing their departure. If the reason they are leaving is strictly financial, then they should put all 10 chips on Financial Reasons. However, if finances were only one part of their consideration, but the social atmosphere, a poor grade in a course, and lack of playing time on their athletic team were also influencing their decision, they should distribute the chips to the various categories that played a role accordingly.

Capture the Data. Once the chips are placed, the number and types of influences can be documented and clarifying questions can be asked. For example, while documenting the number of chips on each category, you might say, “I noticed you placed three chips on Athletic Reasons, can you tell me more about that?”

Get Clarification. Asking clarifying questions can help to give more context and insight into the student’s thought process, as well as help to identify potential themes or trends across campus that you may not know exist. For example, there may be issues with a specific sports team or campus group that needs to be addressed. Or perhaps there are groups of students leaving because the institution doesn’t offer a particular major or program that could potentially be added. Or perhaps there is a larger campus climate issue such as racial tension that needs to be addressed more proactively and systematically.

Analyze & Report the Data. Once you have the numbers, it is important to track it, ideally, in your student management database. This way, the percentages can be reported with other student demographic information that may paint an even larger picture. These reports can then be used to share with others on campus and spread information about the different issues at play with your institution’s retention efforts. While financial and personal reasons may continue to play a role in a student’s decision to leave, it is likely that other factors will emerge, making it more and more challenging for retention issues to be blamed on a handful of factors outside of the institution’s control.

So, you may be reading and thinking, “This is great, but I’m not responsible for retention on my campus (or our exit interview process), so how does this help me?”

Great question!

While you may not be responsible for retention on campus, are you in a position that has the opportunity to have conversations with students? If so, the concept of the 10-chip exercise may prove useful to you in some situations. If a student discloses they are having doubts about continuing their education at your institution, are there elements of the 10-chip exercise you can use to help them process their thoughts? In addition to using it as an exit interview tool, it can also be used with students who are just beginning to think about leaving.

The game board can offer a way for students to process their thoughts, while at the same time giving you insight into their reasoning, the opportunity to ask them non-threatening questions about their experiences, and the ability to offer support and advice for navigating their decision-making process. While it won’t make sense for every faculty or staff member to have a 10-chip game board in their back pocket, it may make sense for faculty advisors, academic advisors, residence life staff, and student life staff to consider using it as a tool in their conversations with students.

The 10-chip exercise is truly a powerful tool as it does not just give you information on one reason a student may be leaving campus, but it can give you insight into the multiple reasons influencing a student’s decision. And better yet, you will have this information as quantitative data that can easily be shared and understood by campus constituents to guide institution decision-making and raise awareness, making it that much easier to rally the troops to create a campus culture of retention.

I’d love to hear what your campus is doing to track retention and support students who may be considering transferring or taking a break from their educational pursuits. Tweet me @LearnForwardHE and let’s keep the conversation going!

Emily Siegel

Associate Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Dallas, TX