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On the campus of Houston Baptist University, many students are the first in their families to go to college. It’s a distinction that makes the private university want to ensure that their students completely understand what is expected of them before the first day of classes.

Those expectations extend beyond academics, from knowing the exact cost of attending to university to making certain every form and application is signed and delivered.

Houston Baptist calls the initiative Project Day One, and they’re hopeful that it’ll lead to increases in retention.

“We knew there were several barriers to entry and frankly issues that were keeping students from being successful,” said James Steen, vice president of enrollment management at Houston Baptist. “We’re a really diverse campus, but we serve a low socioeconomic group and obviously a private education is expensive, so what we found is financial settlement is a big problem. We had a lot of students carrying balances from term to term, and we had to do something.”

Houston Baptist is a Hispanic-serving institution, with about 41 percent of its coming freshmen identifying as Hispanic, Steen said. About 80 percent of students are from the Houston metropolitan area.

“The whole point of Project Day One is to get everything buttoned up and completed by the first day of class, and it isn’t intended just for new incoming students, but also current students,” he said.

In order to simplify the paperwork for students, Houston Baptist deployed a mobile financial aid program through CampusLogic that allows students to track each step in their aid process.

“This generation may not be as disciplined as we are about checking email, but we know more than 95 percent of students have a smartphone in their pocket, so we had to figure out a way to get to them,” Steen said.

Steen said the college is not asking students to have their tuition completely paid by the time classes start, but to have their paperwork and financial aid turned in to the college, and to have a plan and communicate with the college about the costs.

In some cases, HBU has been able to help students fill the gaps in financial aid, especially if they’re doing well academically, he said, adding that this can be especially difficult for international students who may have a hard time paying tuition when the money is coming from out of the country.

“The hard conversation is sometimes we just can’t help this student,” Steen said. “Sometimes there are students who are not making academic progress and they’re borrowing a lot of money to close the gap, and the best thing for them frankly is to say, ‘This is not a good fit for you.’ Those are the hard conversations, but they’re in the student’s best interest.”

Project Day One goes beyond financial aid, though, Steen said, adding that there are plenty of other boxes that incoming students have to check that can be burdensome if they’re new to college -- like sending in high school transcripts, completing immunizations or tracking down transferred course work.

Colleges have been working for years to try to streamline the entry process, especially when it comes to financial aid, said Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

It’s why many of them have pushed for a simplified Free Application for Federal Student Aid process or prior-prior year data, she said.

“You want everything to be all set and ready to go when school starts so you can focus on the academic side,” McCarthy said. “So much of it is timing, training and education for students.”

Complications like verification can derail students, which is why information sessions to avoid mistakes and a more streamlined process help, she said.

Many colleges have taken the position that students who haven’t paid the semester’s tuition in full aren’t allowed to register or move into dorms, said Zakiya Smith, strategy director at Lumina Foundation.

“Paperwork, or just in general the process of coming to school and getting courses in order … can be a barrier for students, if you’re a first-generation college student or someone who doesn’t have mentors or support,” Smith said. “It’s often a challenge to get them on the right foot, but the colleges that are looking to help students have those supports in place to get the financial aid done, those colleges that do that are largely successful.”

In the three years since Houston Baptist started Project Day One, the university has seen increases to its retention, but they also readily admit there have been some setbacks, which they attribute to the economy.

Undergraduate retention from first year to second year grew from 74.7 percent in 2015 to 76.4 percent in 2016, according to a report from the university’s office of institutional research and effectiveness. In that same time, minority retention grew nearly two percentage points, however, new freshman retention was down 2.6 percentage points, to 67.3 percent.

“We’ve seen some nice increase in retention, and a lot of it stems from the fact that students are more aware of the process,” Steen said, adding that students who don’t establish payment plans or settle tuition bills risk losing their schedule, although it’s a policy they don’t enforce. “We added the stronger language and we thought it would improve our yield in a way, but they’re flat and slowed down, and that’s because we’ve been so much more up front about it and students have opted out.”

In some cases, Steen said, students have made the decision that they can’t afford the college.

“And that’s OK, because we’d rather have them figure it out on the front end than come here for a semester and get in over their head from a financial perspective and transfer out anyway,” he said.

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