The Retention Guru
Two decades ago, Xavier University could only count on three of every four freshmen returning for sophomore year. Even fewer made it to graduation.
Today, though, close to 9 of every 10 students who start freshman year at the Jesuit university in Cincinnati make it back the next fall. Seven in 10 will graduate in four years, and another one will likely graduate in the two years after that.
The quality of students Xavier admits hasn’t changed, nor have its academic standards. The biggest difference is one man – Adrian A. Schiess, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel -- and his day-in, day-out devotion to keeping students at Xavier.
Since 1990, Schiess, a former professor of military science at Xavier, has been the university’s full-time director for student success and retention, an on-campus guru whose job responsibilities all lead to the same goal: helping any student who wants to be at Xavier stay at Xavier.
“There’s no magic to retention,” he says. “The key is hard work and a position like mine -- having someone who has focused responsibility from the university to guide and steer efforts to keep students here.”
At other colleges, Schiess says, retention is an afterthought. “All the enrollment management people are really thinking about is admissions and financial aid. They might say, ‘You get them, you pay for them and you keep them,’ but they end up taking the third part as a given -- but it really isn’t.”
Retention is getting more attention with the tight economy and national leaders urging colleges to graduate more students. But at Xavier, where this is not a new emphasis, Schiess is its guru. Sister Rose Ann Fleming, Xavier’s coordinator of athletic academic advising, has gotten national press attention for coaching all 80 or so seniors who’ve played men’s varsity basketball to graduation over the last 25 years, but Schiess has helped far more students earn an Xavier degree.
“Walking around the campus with Adrian is like you’re walking around with a rock star,” says Sasha Peterson, president of Hobsons Enrollment Management Technology, which produces software that Schiess uses to conduct faculty and student surveys. “He has an incredible network on campus.”
Schiess reports to Kandi Stinson, associate provost for academic affairs, who says that maintaining a high retention rate is important culturally and financially. “First and foremost retention supports our mission to educate students holistically – intellectually, spiritually, morally – so that they are successful and ultimately graduate,” she says. “But any university that is tuition-dependent needs to retain its students to be able to survive.”
Investments like staffing the Office of Student Success and Retention with Schiess, an assistant director, an administrative assistant and two graduate assistants end up paying off, Stinson says. The university spends about $250,000 each year on the office and gives Schiess $400,000 in financial aid to distribute to struggling students, but all those expenditures still leave the university in the black.
“An additional $1,000 we give to a student in the fall will return us an additional $14,000 in the spring,” Schiess says. “But before you decide whether to give the student that money, you have to know that person individually to see if it makes sense.”
Financial issues are, by and large, the primary reason why students think about leaving Xavier, he says. Students may be referred to him because of falling grades, mental or physical health issues, or relationship problems, but in most cases there’s also underlying financial need. “Very few universities connect financial difficulties directly with retention. If a student is in a bursar hold situation, where they’re not going to be able to register for the spring semester because they’re a few thousand dollars short, that’s a retention issue,” he says. “But I have this money and know that the father lost his job, that the student is excellent, that there are two other students in this family in college and can spend it strategically to make a difference.”
Though there’s been an uptick in financial aid requests since the start of the recession, Schiess says he’s also seen the emergence of a few other trends in recent years: increasingly more students who lack coping skills, who expected college would be easier, or who have a mental health problem exacerbated by moving away from home. “It could be parental issues that are of this generation that are making students less able to get through college,” he says. “The parents are doing so much for them through high school. We’re not going to hold their hands, but we are going to try to help them build the independence that’s so important in being successful.”
Before Schiess started his work, Xavier’s four-year graduation rate was 57 percent. For the freshman classes that enrolled in 2003, 2004 and 2005, it’s averaged 69 percent. The five-year graduation rate for students who started in 2003 and 2004 is 77 percent. According to 2009 ACT data, it’s 65.2 percent for similar institutions.
Beginning the summer before students enroll, and running through the end of their senior year, Schiess and his small staff work doggedly to retain students.
Ninety percent of incoming freshmen attend each year’s Priority Registration Experience Program, a day where students visit the campus, meet with academic advisers and get their university identification cards. Though a preorientation or registration event during the spring or summer before students start is a common practice, at Xavier it’s the start of the university’s extensive efforts to keep the students it gets and pays for.
“The subliminal little pieces that we take for granted are so important,” Schiess says. “Now that student will be able to go back to his friends and show off his Xavier ID. She’ll have met a few people in the hallway while waiting for a meeting with her academic adviser and will know those people again in the fall. It’s all about a sense of belonging.”
The most intense work happens during and after freshman year, which is when colleges generally lose the largest number of students. Xavier’s freshman retention rate for the last three years has averaged 86 percent. (It’s been higher in the past, Schiess says, but the economic downturn and other factors pulled away more students than usual during 2008-9). At selective master’s-level private universities, the national mean was 81.4 percent, according to ACT data.
Central to the success is constant monitoring. Four or five weeks into each semester, Schiess asks all faculty teaching freshmen to fill out a survey, the Faculty Feedback Form. Sent as a link that comes prepopulated with class rosters, the form allows faculty to identify students with absences, poor grades or behavioral issues. “Two F’s in midterms can be difficult to come back from,” Schiess says. “But if we get to the student earlier, when Susan has two D’s and an attendance issue a few weeks into the semester, it’s easier for us 'to start to intervene.”
Not every student who a faculty member identifies through the survey agrees to visit the Office of Student Success and Retention, but most do. “If a student wants to be at Xavier, he’ll usually want to get help,” Schiess says.
Though Schiess meets with many students himself, the two graduate assistants who work in the office do much of the counseling of freshmen. “When a student comes in, I’ll start off asking how they’re doing, what’s going on in their lives,” says Jessica Smith, a graduate student studying to be a high school counselor who has worked in the office since last fall. “Sometimes it’s the logistics of how they’re studying, how much time they’re studying, the adjustment from high school to college. There’s a change in expectations and some students aren’t as prepared as others and are overwhelmed at the beginning of the year.”
The office staff met with 80 freshmen last fall and 40 during the spring semester. That’s a small percentage out of a class of about 750, but it makes a difference in each student’s life and in the ethos of the class as a whole. “There’s more stability in the student body, less turnover of students, and that really contributes to the sense of community,” says Stinson. “You have a very good chance that the people you make friends with freshman year will be around at graduation. That’s not a given at a lot of universities like Xavier.”
Freshman year is when the biggest retention melt happens and is where many institutions focus most of their retention resources, but Schiess and his team devote much of their time to sophomores, juniors and seniors.
Every summer, Schiess’ office sends surveys to all students asking if they’re planning to return that fall. Most colleges are aware of which students enrolled in the spring semester haven’t registered for fall courses, but communications generally drop off between there and a late summer bill or the start of classes. If a student hasn’t enrolled in fall courses or indicates on the survey that he’s maybe or definitely not coming back, someone on Schiess’ staff will get in touch.
More often than not, he says, the issues that arise during summer (as during the academic year) are financial and can be met using grants from Schiess’ fund or adjustments from the financial aid office.
At Xavier, Schiess says, “we don’t let them think for a minute that we take them for granted.”