Attempting to define students success

“Look to your right, look to your left — one of them won’t be here next year.” Universities use this line, often at freshman orientation, to foreshadow the difficulties of higher education that await their incoming students. Student retention remains an important factor in education today: as of 2014, roughly 30 percent of first-year students who attend four-year public schools in the U.S. do not return for a second year, according to information compiled from ACT Institutional data files. With public awareness of student retention increasing, so has universities’ interest in boosting retention rates.

Simply defined, retention rates show how many new students do or do not return to school from year to year.

“The landscape of higher education has changed over the past 10 to 20 years to be more focused on how well an institution is doing with retaining and graduating its students,” Carina Beck, director of Career, Internship and Student Employment Services, said, “Generally speaking the idea here is that a university cannot fail a student, that we must work, and work intelligently, collaboratively and strategically to keep our students.”

She named Complete College Montana, performance funding and the MSU strategic plan as products of this changing attitude. Complete College Montana is part of Complete College America, a non-profit organization with the goal to work with state governments to increase the overall number of Americans with college certificates and degrees while performance funding is awarded by the Montana University System (MUS) in response to a university’s retention rates, research expenditures and total bachelors and graduate degrees awarded.

These statistics are used extensively by universities in planning for the future and are one of the four metrics used to determine whether or not MSU will receive performance funding from the MUS. “I think it is foremost in decision making on just about any topic that involves students … our retention rates are very visible and very in the front of the minds of decision makers,” said Chris Fastnow, director of MSU’s Office of Planning and Analysis.

Fastnow explained that retention rates are early indicators of success in new programs and are widely used in different offices and by organizations across campus. Every fall, retention rates are reported by the Office of Planning and Analysis to the University Council, who evaluate the numbers and determine whether they need to be increased and the best ways to do so. Additionally, retention numbers are used extensively by the Division of Student Success and Office of the Provost.

While many students do not think about retention rates, university decision makers think about them all the time, according to Fastnow.

MSU measures its retention in several ways. “The first and most commonly used measure takes a cohort of students, defines who that incoming group is and looks to see how many enroll the following fall,” Fastnow said.

The first-time, full-time retention rate is comprised of students attending university for the first time while taking a full credit load. MSU’s has grown steadily, from 70.5 percent in 2005 to 76 percent in 2013. That number is still six percent page points short of the target 82 percent by 2019 in MSU’s strategic plan. However, Fastnow expects that number will continue to rise to reach that goal as MSU takes steps to increase retention.

MSU also tracks the retention rate of first-time, part-time students, new transfer students and a measure that combines all three. At MSU this combined measure of new student retention has remained mostly static at 70 percent for the past ten years, in comparison to the steady increase of first-time full-time students. “This is the one I would like to see improved upon,” Fastnow said.

The biggest drop in retention is between a student’s first and second fall semesters. Once students have invested more than a year into their education, they tend to stay, Fastnow said.

The Office of Planning and Analysis reports retention rates on various demographics including race, ethnicity, gender and residency status. “There are some groups that consistently retain at lower and higher rates, which are universal across the country. Women tend to retain at higher rates, resident students tend to at stay their institution at higher rates and full-time students tend to retain at higher rates,” Fastnow said.

By contrast, students who are the first in their families to attend college, those who have financial and those from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups tend to retain at lower rates. These demographics are closely watched by the office.

Some efforts MSU has made to boost retention rates have been funded through performance funding and from funds from the Strategic Investment Proposal pool. Additionally, the university has been able to redesign different programs on campus with minimal funding, changes which Fastnow categorized into three areas: curricular, extracurricular and cocurricular.

Curricular improvements include an increase in technology-enhanced, active learning (TEAL) model courses, supplemental instruction, and service or integrated learning, which teaches students how to practically apply what they are taught in classrooms. According to Fastnow, these programs have seen positive feedback.

Extracurricular changes include an increase in the number of and participation in student organizations, the integration of residence life with academics, and more service opportunities offered through the Office of Activities and Engagement.

Cocurricular programs the university has been using to increase retention include tutoring, non-credit supplemental instruction, expansions of the math and writing centers and new improved software such as Degree Works.

A great deal of cocurricular assistance is offered through the Office of Student Success, which has made significant investments towards student retention. Since one of the major focuses of the center and its employees is student career development, they help students in finding a career in which they would excel by evaluating the student’s skills, values and preferences.

In addition to offering tutoring services and learning strategies, the Office of Student Success provides financial education to prevent students from taking on too much debt. To this end, the office offers one-on-one meetings with financial coaches through its Office of Financial Education. These meetings are free of charge and can be used to discuss financial issues such as retirement, student loans, credit card debt, mortgages and salary negotiation. The office also offers workshops across campus, including in residence halls and fraternities and sororities.

“We know that if a student engages a lot, they are much more likely to persist. If they don’t, they are more likely to leave,” Beck said.

“We’re working now to be more mindful of ways to engage students with something that registers with them and is meaningful to them … we want them to feel they have developed intellectually, socially and civically at this place,” she further explained.

Beck feels that the best way to help individual students is to understand how diverse they are: “Zeroing in on those differences and appealing to people in a way that is personal, meaningful and therefore motivating, that takes work, but that’s part of the retention enigma we are working through … We know once you feel a connection, once you find something with purpose, once you find something you can relate to and call it your own, you sail and away you go.”

In order for the office to help those who might be struggling, Beck encourages students to reach out in turn. “Trust that you need to stretch yourself … take that little bit of risk and get outside your comfort zone — when a student is willing to do that, there is a whole community ready and willing to embrace them.”

Concerning students who do not reach out to the Office of Student Success on their own, Beck said, “That is something that we and many institutions are looking it. At first it was, ‘You must walk through our doors,’ and that doesn’t work.” Now the office reaches out to students who may need help through student organizations and social media.

“We think these are all good investments, we believe that they are having an effect on retention, and we are trying to do our best to understand them. Even if they did not have an impact on retention, if they are helping students at that time and in that place where that student is, that is a success,” Fastnow said.