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Retention on front burner

Sept. 20, 2007
By Jennifer Krisch

Ohio University's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee has recommended a multiphase strategy for building retention among students transitioning from their first to second years, and people across campus are making it happen.

The university's first-year retention rate has fallen about 1 percent a year in each of the past six years, according to figures from the Office of Institutional Research. Preliminary enrollment figures released earlier this week indicate a drop from 79.8 percent to 78.5 percent this year. However, retention among other classes increased this year, contributing to overall enrollment growth.

The university began working on strategies to address retention about two years ago; many are already in place. For instance, the university has adopted the Student Response Inventory (SRI) to help identify students before they have academic difficulty, doubled the number of learning communities, made a first-year experience course (UC115) and learning community participation a must for undecided students, and begun instituting more selective admissions. 

"Undecided students are at the most risk for leaving the university. UC 115 will help them locate the right major and make them aware of all of the academic support services available to them," said Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education David Descutner, who also serves as dean of University College (in which most undecided students are enrolled) and as a member of the Enrollment Management Advisory Committee. "Participation in learning communities, we know from past years, correlates with higher rates of retention, which is why we are requiring all undecided students to participate in them."

Ohio University also launched the Difficult Dialogues Program, which the Ford Foundation funded, to assist in the school's efforts to retain high-ability students and encourage first-year students to become engaged student leaders, Descutner said. Led by Professor Steve Hays and colleagues from the departments of Classics and World Religions and African American Studies, Ohio University's program is one of only 27 selected for funding from a pool of nearly 700 colleges and universities that applied.

Descutner said the university also is launching additional programs to increase retention rates.

"We are initiating more systematic assessments of the first-year experience so that we know the areas in which we need to make improvements," he said. "This is also the second year of operation of the Allen Student Help Center, which is coordinating the SRI and other university-wide retention initiatives."

Executive Vice President and Provost Kathy Krendl, in her written report to Faculty Senate, noted that in addition to these initiatives, the university has implemented an extensive set recommendations, including:

  • Creating a first-year experience committee
  • Appointing a director of retention
  • Reviving the Center for Teaching and Learning and appointing a director
  • Implementing a first-year assessment plan to monitor the overall experience of incoming students
  • Developing and launching a Web-based student handbook
  • Increasing learning communities (This academic year, half of incoming freshmen are enrolled in them.)
  • Further developing strategies to reduce high-risk drinking
  • Expanding the Common Reading Program
  • Expanding the Attrition Intervention Program to better identify at-risk students and provide assistance to them
  • Identifying first-generation college students as a potential group of at-risk students
  • Enhancing communication to admitted and matriculating students and their families

Additionally, Krendl has requested that each college appoint a recruitment and retention committee, comprising faculty who will assist with admission and retention efforts.

Finally, the university is in the process of reviewing applications for the full-time position of vice provost for enrollment management, who will oversee the retention initiatives and be responsible for implementing the recommendations and committee plans.

Descutner said faculty and staff collaborating across the university can help reverse the drop in retention. "Student recruitment has become a collective effort on this campus in which faculty and staff involvement has made a significant and altogether affirmative difference," he said. "We need to make retention that kind of collective effort if we are to have the same level of success that we've enjoyed with recruitment over the last two years."

The conversation, he added, should really be about helping students succeed.

"We talk about retention, but what we really should be talking about is student success," he said, "because that's what creates the conditions for students to return."

Published: Jul 20, 2006 3:50:00 PM
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