Christoph Knoess is the founder and president of Engaged Minds Inc. and a regular contributor to the Higher Education Management Group. Before starting Engaged Minds, he served as Senior Vice President, Sales, Marketing and Strategy, at Jenzabar Inc.,a software company that serves higher education institutions with administrative software. At Jenzabar he built a consulting group focused on helping colleges and universities in the areas of enrollment, retention and advancement. Christoph brings to Engaged Minds many years experience in the higher education industry and a keen understanding of what it takes to bring change to education. Prior to Jenzabar, Christoph worked as an executive with Ernst & Young in Boston, New York and London. At Ernst & Young he developed and facilitated large scale change management workshops with Fortune 500 companies. Before joining Ernst & Young, Christoph worked for 6 years a strategy consultant with Bain & Company, a global top-tier strategy firm, in Europe and in the U.S., specializing in the technology and retail industries. Christoph holds a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the Technical University of Munich and an MBA from INSEAD in Fontainebleau.

Engaged Minds helps colleges and universities in the area of undergraduate student retention and drop-out prevention through a hosted early alert and process automation solution.

Keith: Who are the people in colleges that typically take on the challenge of retention? What are their motivations?

Most often there are several disconnected conversations about student retention. Board, president and cabinet might discuss retention as an institutional problem in the abstract, mostly in response to pressure from state boards. Rarely do they act on their deliberations, because institution-wide and strategic problems are hard to solve. At the same time a few departments might discuss preventable student drop-outs, and sometimes they implement a tactical solution at the department level quite independent of their cabinet, just because relatively small expenditures have enormous financial payback.

Keith: How common is it that colleges address retention on an institution-wide scale?

I believe that most colleges discuss retention as an institutional problem, but have grown so complex that they can no longer act on an institution-wide scale. Their organizational fragmentation makes institution-wide action impossible. Many presidents and provosts seem to have given up on the idea of institution-wide action, and are quite happy whenever a departmental fief takes autonomous action. I don’t know many institutions where institutional intent and operational reality come even remotely close to each other, whether it is student retention or any other problem – other than accreditation, maybe.

Keith: Do most institutions consider technology as an obvious part of the retention solution?

Most institutions understand that technology is an important part of increasing student retention. That is most obvious in the area of early warning systems to identify at-risk students. The traditional tools identify at-risk students much too late during the Freshmen year, e.g., mid-term grades, advising sessions etc.  However, when it comes to intervention management and outcome measurement, the power of a solution like ours is sometimes seen as a threat. Process automation technology is not only effective; it can also tip the balance of power on campus.

Keith: The pursuit of innovation in higher education seems to be at its strongest in decades. In what areas of higher ed do you see the greatest need and opportunities for innovation?

Energy and dollars currently seem to be focused on social media. I am skeptical about true innovations these investments will yield. The biggest opportunity I see is in the delivery of learning content. The quality of (free) electronic content is extremely high and rising. At the same time, at most institutions cost considerations are shifting delivery of learning content to TA’s and adjuncts. Great innovation will occur when innovative institutions or students, unwilling to pay $30k to be taught by kids 4 years their senior, will bring these two divergent trends together.

Keith: What are your long-term plans for Engaged Minds? Do you plan to expand into other areas of education?

I believe that “student retention” is just a small but very visible part of a big problem area. Academic preparedness and maturity of incoming students keeps declining, and institutions can no longer just throw money at academic support and student services – it has proven to be unaffordable and ineffective. Institutions need to become more intentional, deliberate and coordinated in their many interactions with their students. The immediate adjacencies to student retention that we have on our current roadmap are advising and degree planning. But this entire domain is fraught with many more problems that need smart “Learner Relationship Management”.


  1. The book “Voluntary Student Clubs” demonstrates the impact of student organizations on retention rates.


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