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Alabama State Takes New Approach To Curb Low-Retention Rates

Alabama State Takes
New Approach To Curb Low-Retention RatesIn recent years, Alabama State University has enrolled a record number of students but its retention and graduation rates have been less impressive. Of the roughly 6,000 students that enter Alabama State, only 21 percent stay and graduate, according to published reports issued by the university. It is one of the lowest retention rates in the region.
“It’s not just Alabama State,” says Dr. Evelyn White, vice president of academic affairs. “Other universities have retention rates at 13, 11 percent, far lower than Alabama State. I don’t think that we’re just out there by ourselves. … I’d certainly like to see great improvement in ours, but we’re not at the lowest end.”
Still, officials at Alabama State are taking a new approach to solving the long-held retention problem this fall, redoubling efforts to make sure students not only stay in college but also graduate. White says she has decentralized the school’s efforts by asking deans of each academic department to come up with a strategic plan of how to successfully keep and graduate students. Whether it’s re-evaluating difficult portions of their curricula, or making sure tutors are available in each subject area, the department heads are now responsible for their own retention plan, she says.
Throughout the university, the emphasis is on improved teaching techniques, expanding the number and availability of tutors and providing increased one-on-one student support. Midterm faculty evaluations and an early warning system that alerts students that they are in jeopardy of failing a class are also components of the plan.
New software that allows students to take advantage of computer-assisted instruction will soon be available, and faculty will be available during posted office hours to meet with students and answer their questions. Also, writing assignments will be required in all classes, from tennis to philosophy and chemistry, for example.
In addition, students will be held accountable. They must attend classes, follow through on assignments and seek the proper help before it is too late to pass a course.
But a challenging academic program is not the primary reason students drop out, White says.
Anecdotal data and national trends suggest that while there are certainly high-risk subjects that challenge students — physics, chemistry and mathematics — a student’s lack of maturity, or college preparation, as well as a lack of family and financial support are the biggest culprits, White says.
“We have students who struggle from day to day to try and make ends meet financially. Sometimes they work two jobs just to stay in school,” she says. “And although some of them may get their Pell Grants or other types of financial assistance, they still have other issues that they have to deal with that don’t fall into that category of coverage of financial aid.”
The university can’t solve all the problems, officials say, but they can make sure the school offers and makes students aware of support systems that are in place.
“It’s a concern that we have, but you can’t solve all of the problems that students have,” White says. “When you open up your doors and you allow a large population of students to attend your university, they bring a large number of problems with them. Of course, our main focus is academics; we make sure we have a strong academic program in place. But all the other problems that students bring have an impact on whether or not they are able to stay and finish.”
Retention is the responsibility of the entire university, says Dr. Joe A. Lee, president of Alabama State.
Institutions typically implement centralized corrective measures targeting retention, instead of more effective, decentralized approaches, he says. 
“Dr. White and I have talked about making every individual on this campus responsible for retaining students and increasing the graduation rate,” he told a campus publication recently. “I don’t think that is unreasonable because we are here to provide a service to students and to retain them as our customers.”   — By Tracie Powell

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