At every large research university, it’s a given that some freshmen will set foot on campus, and before the other foot is down, decide the place isn’t for them.
Administrators at the University of Connecticut wanted to find out who those students were, and why they were leaving. So staff members started calling them and asking. In just a few years, patterns emerged.
Out-of-state students were leaving more frequently, as were students who entered without a major in mind. Administrators realized that students without a planned course of study needed more advising, so they doubled the number of advisers in the Academic Center for Entering Students, from 7 to 14.
Five years ago, Connecticut formed the 20-member Graduation and Retention Task Force, made up of faculty and staff members, senior administrators and students. Part of the university’s efforts in those years has consisted of compiling reams of data on students -- from quantitative demographic information to their answers when asked why they dropped out -- so that, rather than just nice gestures, initiatives to improve retention target known problems.
From 1998 to 2004, Connecticut’s freshman retention rate rose from an already respectable 86 percent, to 92 percent, and from 88 percent to 93 percent among minority students. The increases earned the University of Connecticut recognition from the Educational Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization, which awarded the institution its Outstanding Retention Program Award last month.
According to data from the Department of Education, about 14 percent of four-year students nationally drop out before the second year, and 13 percent more before the third year. After the first two years, the percentage of departures drops dramatically. Only six of students who made it through three years drop out before the forth.
“We’ve become very data driven,” said M. Dolan Evanovich, UConn’s vice provost for enrollment management.
Another of the themes that jumped out of the data was that, as has been shown in other studies, students who do not make it to the sophomore year generally show signs of distress very early on. Connecticut used to have a system in which faculty and staff members would be alerted to flailing students midway through the first semester, but Evanovich said that wasn’t soon enough. Under UConn’s new early warning system, if a student is headed for a D or F in a class in his or her first six weeks, the student's First Year Experience instructor is notified, as are the student’s academic adviser and residence hall director.
The early warning system is part of the realization that the very first weeks of college can be the most crucial time in determining whether a students stays or goes. Connecticut has had a First Year Experience program for about 15 years that helps students navigate the university, but it has been expanded over the last five years. “We put in resources so every student can take it as a one credit course,” Evanovich said. The course runs the gamut: time management and study skills, how to use library technology, how to interact with people of different backgrounds. Every section is limited to no more than 19 students, taught by a volunteer faculty or staff member. Evanovich teaches one himself, with the help of a student.
Students, in fact, have played a significant role in the retention successes, often as peer mentors in the university’s cultural centers and in the athletics department. In 1997, the cultural centers at UConn -- the African American Cultural Center, and the Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center, for example -- all came under the leadership of the vice provost for multicultural and international affairs. “They enjoy a different kind of leadership,” said Damon Williams, assistant vice provost for multicultural and international affairs. “There’s more focus around key indicators.”
For example, Williams said, administrators are compiling a wide variety of very specific data sets, like degree completion rates for black men in engineering, and for women in biology. “We’re using that data to write new grants,” he said. In the last two years, UConn has received more than $2 million in federal grants to help increase the number of graduates from underrepresented groups.
Stephanie Marnin, director of the Rainbow Center, a cultural center for students of all sexual orientations, said that the centralized leadership has helped make the centers “part of the fabric of the university,” rather than far-flung activities that students must seek out by themselves. The centers now have their activities listed along with other orientation activities.
The students on the task force helped create “Huskies Away From Home,” a peer mentoring group for out-of-state students, whose retention rates were lagging a bit behind those of other students.
Williams added that targeted advising works, whether from staff members or students, and that compiling data on students who leave has made for accurate targeting. “We’re in a rural environment, and if a student comes to us from New York City, there’s tremendous adjustment,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to help they reframe things. Left to their own devices, a student might say, ‘I can’t get to a Starbucks, I like to ride the subway.’ We can tell them, ‘you may never live like this again. This is a wonderful environment for you to learn about the countryside, and take advantage of the greens and the environment.’” Williams said that getting a student involved in leadership programs or helping out with athletic teams on campus often gives them the entree into campus life that gets a student hooked.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that Connecticut spent over $3 million to hire new faculty members and to get more seats in existing courses “so that students can get the courses they need to graduate in four years,” Evanovich said. The four-year graduation rate increased from 44 percent to 54 percent between 1998 and 2004.
All Connecticut’s work earned them the Outstanding Retention Program Award from the Educational Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization, last month. But they aren’t stopping with a nice mantle piece.
Many students who left UConn before their second year told staff members that the lack of a town outside of the main campus made them feel isolated. So UConn has partnered with the Leyland Alliance, a contractor that has invested $145 million, to break ground on developments toward a town this summer. “Students were leaving because when they walked across the street, there was nothing,” Evanovich said.
As Williams noted, the retention increase coincides exactly with Connecticut’s ramping up of data collection, and responding to what it tells them, just as it is responding to the replies of students who left early. “These successes are no accident,” he said.