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Award-Winning Approaches to Retention

Award-Winning Approaches to RetentionHigher education consulting firm Noel-Levitz recognizes a handful of universities with the most effective retention programsRetaining incoming freshmen is one of the most critical issues colleges and universities face, particularly among minority, poor and first-generation students. Though university retention programs share many similarities, institutions take many different and innovative approaches to best prepare the most at-risk freshmen for the college experience, often leading to both improved grades and graduation rates.
Each year, Noel-Levitz, a higher education consulting firm that advises colleges and universities about student programs, recognizes a handful of institutions with the most effective retention programs.
This year’s Noel-Levitz Retention Excellence Award winners are: Arkansas Tech University; The College of New Jersey; Lehigh Carbon Community College; Michigan State University; Mississippi State University; Slippery Rock University; Texas A&M University; University of Alaska, Anchorage; and the University of California, San Diego.
A panel of higher education administrators and consultants select the awardees based on measurable results, originality and creativity of the programs, resource use and adaptability to other institutions.
The schools were honored at Noel-Levitz’s annual National Conference on Student Retention held in San Diego this month.The following are brief profiles of the award-winning retention programs. Arkansas Tech University, Russellville
Retention Program: Bridge to Excellence
Rather than focus on a small population, Arkansas Tech University’s retention program targets the entire 1,100 student freshmen class during the first six weeks of the semester. Approximately 100 faculty and additional staff mentor the freshmen, meeting with them after orientation and again mid-way through the semester.
Mentors assess student needs and refer them to campus services that can help with problem areas. Arkansas Tech has developed special student programs to go along with this effort and its student services staff coordinates referrals to university agencies and services.
Begun with a sample of 105 students in 2001, the program was subsequently enlarged to 310 students before expansion to the entire class this year. Results from the first sample show a 16 percent retention rate increase from fall 2001 to fall 2002 and a 0.5 GPA increase compared to non-participating freshmen. The expanded program’s results have shown an increase in fall to spring retention rates of more than 6 percent over non-participants.
The College of New Jersey, Ewing
Retention Program: Minority Mentoring Program
Minority students often feel isolated and lonely upon arrival at mostly White campuses. So the College of New Jersey established its Minority Mentoring Program to help African American and Hispanic students adjust to their new life on campus.
“One of the things that I noticed is that some of the students in those first few weeks don’t get to know as many students as they’d like too, particularly minority students,” says Wayne Jackson, the program coordinator and the college’s assistant director for records and registration.
An important part of the Minority Mentoring Program is the leadership of upperclassmen, Jackson says. Several minority upperclassmen contact incoming freshman over the summer to introduce themselves and answer any questions the incoming students may have. At the end of the first month of school, the students and upperclassmen mentors gather off-campus for a daylong conference where they hear about on-campus services and how to succeed from college staff and an unaffiliated speaker.
“It’s an all day opportunity to bond with other students, including upperclassmen, and that helps a little bit,” Jackson says.
During the first semester, students gather weekly for social events or to study. About once a week, mentors meet with students to answer questions about academics or campus life, and the college provides extra tutoring. During the students’ second year, faculty and staff mentors help them develop career goals and network on and off campus.
Between the program’s initiation in 1986 and this year, the first-to-second-year retention rate for African American, Hispanic and general admit students increased from 40 percent to 91 percent. Also, between 1995 and 2001, participants’ graduation rate was 77 percent at an average of 4.4 years compared to the statewide rate for African Americans and Hispanics of 30 percent at an average of 5 years.
“Your students are one of your best assets. I don’t think we use them enough to do what we’re trying to do in retaining students on campus,” Jackson says.
Lehigh Carbon Community College, Schnecksville, Pa.
Retention Program: Early Alert Referral System
At Lehigh Carbon Community College, faculty members asked for a system they could use to identify students who were at risk academically. Faculty members red flag “at-risk” members of the 2,000 full-time and 3,500 part-time student body, and retention staff guide them to appropriate student services.
Faculty members can identify students exhibiting at-risk behaviors in the classroom in two ways. They submit an Early-Alert Referral Form with a checklist of areas of concern and a space for comments. They also fill out a similar Early-Alert Roster sent to them in the second week of the semester and due back by the fourth week.
Retention staff follow up on the alerts with educational support from tutors and labs, career services, counseling, and student life, athletics and financial aid departments.
In 2000-2001, Lehigh Carbon Community College’s retention rate for full-time students was 59 percent, and increased to 64 percent a year later. Faculty referred 638 students to the retention adviser during fall 2002, or 11.6 percent of all students.Michigan State University, East Lansing
Retention Program: Summer University
Program — Excellence Required (SUPER)
Since 1998, Michigan State University has intensified its retention efforts toward a small group of incoming students to augment their participation in the larger College Admissions Achievement Program (CAAP) — designed for first-generation, college-bound, low-income students, about 75 percent of whom are minorities.
About 35 of the 425 students eligible for CAAP participate in the Summer University Program — Excellence Required (SUPER). The program requires students to complete 11-14 credits of college-level coursework and  provides a structured support plan of required study halls, weekly advising in the summer and biweekly sessions during the fall and spring.
As part of the SUPER program, participants are scheduled for classes in blocks to keep them together, receive group dorm assignments, are required to participate in a group led by a university psychologist, life- skills workshops, and fall and spring retreats. They also receive laptop computers and summer tuition, room, board and books.
Betty Sanford, coordinator of the SUPER program says the program is designed to foster strong bonds among the participants.
“The students in the summer really become a strong network of students, they become really cohesive… It’s not so easy to be in a course where you don’t see anyone who looks like you or who you know. So we block schedule them into the classes like a writing seminar or a science class that we know they all take. We even try to put them together in some of the popular electives… This supports the camaraderie that they have garnered together in the summer.”
Between the program’s redesign in 1995 and 2001, the first-to-second-year retention rate of participants increased to 85 percent. This rate almost equals the university-wide persistence rate of 87 percent for the same period, and is 6 percent higher than CAAP’s own persistence rate of 79 percent during the same period.
Sanford’s advice to other schools on retention programs: “Have the size of the group be appropriate for what you can manage. I don’t think it’s a matter of funds as much as having the appropriate staff. Also, don’t be afraid to put up too much structure around the students. We give a lot of structure to the students.”
Mississippi State University, Starkville
Retention Program: Pathfinder
Academic research often has wide societal benefits. At Mississippi State University, a graduate student’s interest in retention issues evolved into a program that flags students with poor attendance for counseling, resulting in a sharp decrease in attendance problems and improvements in several key performance areas.
In 1997, Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center isolated poor class attendance as the most important predictor of academic failure. At the urging of Dr. David McMillen, a psychology professor and research fellow at the center, an increasing number of teaching faculty members took roll in class and reported students with two or more absences in the first six weeks of the semester.
Residence hall staff then contacted the students and made two points: that their instructors were concerned about their absences and were available to discuss any academic problems they might be having.
McMillen says it was difficult at first to convince his colleagues to take attendance, but approaching them personally made the difference.
“What’s happened here over the years, is that the faculty have seen the results, more and more of them have gotten in the habit of taking roll and attendance, and the students have been skipping classes less often,” he says.
Since the program was instituted, the number of freshmen missing two or more sessions of any course in a semester has fallen from 24 percent to 11 percent. At the same time, the mean freshman GPA has increased from 2.52 to 2.67, first-to-second-year retention has increased from 76 percent to 81 percent, and the percentage of students on academic probation after the first semester has fallen from 26 percent to 19 percent.
Last year, the first with a four-year graduation rate since the program’s institution, showed a 3 percent increase in the undergraduate graduation rate for the 16,000 student population.Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pa.
Retention Program: Integrated Learning Community Clusters and Freshmen Seminar
Slippery Rock University’s Integrated Learning Community Clusters and Freshmen Seminar is a retention effort that reaches three-quarters of the 1,000 student freshman class. The program groups freshman in the same schedule of classes for a freshman writing course, a liberal arts or major program course and the freshman seminar, which includes an orientation to campus support services.
Recent improvements to the program include increasing the participation of special admits and minority students, and increasing the use of major program courses such as accounting or education courses. The program also is now using residence hall classrooms and living/learning communities in residence halls.
First-to-second-year persistence for program participants is 3.4 percent higher in fall 2001 and 3.5 percent higher in fall 2002 than non-participants. For students in clusters offering a major program-related course, the persistence rate was up 11 percent in fall 2001, special admits persistence rate was up 6.7 percent and 9.1 percent in fall and spring 2001 respectively, and the persistence rate for students from underrepresented populations increased 24 percent and 9 percent respectively in fall and spring 2001.Texas A&M University,
College Station
Retention Program: Century Scholars
Texas A&M University targets underrepresented high schools each year for special attention through its retention program “Century Scholars.” Currently, 41 high schools are participating in the program, all from the Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston areas.
Approximately 60 students are selected from these schools each year to receive a $20,000 scholarship and are designated a Century Scholar Ambassador. They also receive a $1,000 study abroad stipend, guaranteed on-campus housing and free tutoring.
In exchange, they agree to attend monthly leadership training and advising meetings, to participate in recruiting efforts and make presentations at their former high school, and to meet weekly with a mentor in their freshmen year.
Since 1999, the program has resulted in a 94 percent retention rate among participants, compared to an 88 percent rate across the university’s students in fall 2001. The program has also resulted in an increasingly competitive and larger pool of applicants. The percentage of participants with GPAs above 2.0 and 2.75 has increased steadily.
“We are proud of our students’ level of achievement,” says Dr. David B. Prior, university executive vice president and provost. “The Century Scholars program provides a sense of family and belonging that is vital to their success.”University of Alaska, Anchorage
Retention Program: UA Scholars
The University of Alaska, Anchorage’s Academic Center for Excellence operates the UA Scholars program for approximately 200 students each year from urban areas and remote areas with especially small graduating classes. The diversity of this set of students is much higher than the university’s general student population.
The program offers $11,000 scholarships over eight semesters to the top 10 percent of graduates from qualified high schools. Participants receive mailings, e-mail, phone calls and face-to-face communication before matriculating. They also attend a special track in the summer orientation program. In the first weeks of the fall semester, they receive reports of their academic progress, and they meet with their instructors to go over the reports.
First-to-second-term persistence has risen from 88 percent to 91 percent, a rate that was 6 percentage points higher than the university’s overall rate of 85 percent. Also, first-to-second-year retention has risen from 71 percent to 74 percent, a rate that is 10 percentage points higher than the university’s overall retention rate of 64 percent. The University of
California, San Diego
OASIS Summer Bridge Program
For the last 25 years, the University of California, San Diego has focused its retention efforts on a small group of first-year students who are less likely to remain in school than their peers. Begun in 1978, the OASIS Summer Bridge Program serves 150 out of the approximately 4,000 freshmen annually who attend the university, or about 3.75 percent.
Participants are selected from high schools with high poverty rates and low rates of matriculation to postsecondary education, with 80 percent to 90 percent coming from underrepresented communities such as Chicanos or African Americans. Participants are more likely than their peers to be low income, first-generation college students, and to have significantly lower SAT scores.
OASIS participants enroll in summer courses on the role of higher education, and a math and science enrichment program. They live for a month in a highly structured, intensive residential program with trained peer advisers/resident assistants, who provide individual and group counseling and introduce the students to campus resources. These advisers provide academic counseling during the year as well, and participants attend workshops on math, science, writing and study skills.
In 2001, the OASIS cohort had a first-to-second-year retention rate of 96 percent, four points above the 92 percentage rate among non-participants. Participants’ average GPA was also higher than non-participants’ and fewer participants had GPAs below 2.0 than did non-participants. Of the freshmen who participated in the program in 1995, 81 percent graduated within five years, compared to 78 percent of non-participating freshmen.

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