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Keeping Students Afloat

Keeping Students Afloat

Noel-Levitz awards recognize retention programs that generate results

By Crystal L. Keels

Sink or swim. That has been the prevailing climate of higher education in the past — students will either find their way through, or find their way out of institutions of higher learning. But since roughly the late 1980s and through the 1990s, on campuses across the country a profound shift seems to have taken place. Institutions increasingly understand the need for support to bring students successfully through the undergraduate process, particularly in the first year, which a number of studies indicate is a rather accurate predictor of students’ overall success.
Noel-Levitz, a higher education consultation firm specializing in enrollment management, has acknowledged this transformation since 1989, says Pam Jennings, the company’s director of marketing. With the annual Noel-Levitz Retention Excellence Awards, Jennings says, “We recognize successful state-of-the-art programs, share creativity and showcase successful programs.”
Those institutions that put superior retention programs with measurable outcomes and results in place; demonstrate originality, creativity and also adaptability; show clarity of focus; make efficient use of available institutional resources; and submit for consideration descriptive manuscripts of high quality meet the selection criteria for Noel-Levitz Retention Excellence Awards. Each year the national selection committee — comprised of college administrators, professors and consultants — chooses between three to seven programs as award recipients, Jennings explains. 
The 2004 Lee Noel and Randi Levitz Retention Excellence Award winners include: The Academic Advising and Outreach Center, Southeastern Oklahoma State University; The Challenge Program, Georgia Institute of Technology; The Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) Freshman Year Experience, State University of New York at New Paltz; and Strategies for Academic Success, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Each institution among the 2004 awardees features distinct programs and populations. All award winners were recognized in New Orleans earlier this year at the 2004 National Conference on Student Retention where they were given the opportunity to present their respective programs.


Every summer on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology, incoming freshman of color immerse themselves for five weeks in an intensive introduction to the rigors of academic life as part of the Challenge Program.
“It began in 1980 as a small program with a handful of students,” says S. Gordon Moore Jr., the program’s managing partner and director. He explains that students are chosen on a first-come, first-serve basis and during the program experience a “simulation” of a regular Georgia Tech semester by attending classes during the day and, as an additional activity, participating in community service activities at night. Program participants live in freshman dormitories along with “Challenge Counselors,” upper classmen who interact with participants on a daily basis, supervise them on field trips and facilitate Challenge workshops. 
The Challenge Program is the first formalized program to emerge from the Office of Minority Educational Services (OMED), which reports directly to the Provost’s office at Georgia Tech. Moore explains that the Challenge Program since 1980 has shifted emphasis from an agenda of acculturation to a more academically focused endeavor. In its revised form and with a budget of $2,250 per student, the Challenge Program has serviced as many as 136 students in the mid-1990s, is popular among incoming students and during the past two years can reportedly count among its successes some of the highest retention and graduation rates of science and engineering minority students in the nation.
Moore explains that their success stems from a multidimensional strategy built into the program that develops participants’ self-confidence, fosters an understanding of the higher educational system itself and affords students the ability to branch out and do diverse things while in school.
“They get a definite boost,” Moore says of the groups of young people who, once they complete the Challenge Program, either exceed or match retention rates for the university as a whole. The five-year retention rate for the Challenge Program stands at 73 percent, the same retention rate for Georgia Tech as a whole.
“The fruits of this program, one of the good things (about it) is that you see the product every day,” he concludes.


First-generation college students, first- and second-year American Indian students, undecided majors, transfer students and many others have the opportunity to weigh their academic options and take advantage of a wide range of services on the Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SOSU) campus through the Academic Advising and Outreach Center (AAOC). Established in 2001, the facility, part of the SOSU Division of Academic Affairs, functions as a “place where all students can get their remediation needs met,” and can align their career expectations with plans for academic pursuit, says AAOC director Tim Boatmun.  
“All national data suggest that 40 percent of all students who start a four-year degree will graduate,” Boatmun explains. The first year is crucial, he says, because “60 percent who leave do so in their first year. Anytime there is a transition in anyone’s life (the major issue), is getting through the first year.”  
 Boatmun emphasizes the central importance of academic advising as a means to help students stay the course in their first years and ensure their subsequent success. He says being part of the Division of Academic Affairs reinforces this point because it clearly sends the message that academic advising is essential for the academic development of each student. 
“Intensive support is critical,” he says, especially for lower-income, first-generation students who may not have familial or community support systems to sustain them.
The AAOC has an annual program operation budget of $12,000. A team of two academic advisors, support staff and a graduate assistant help students complete an evaluation process that provides a blueprint for structuring the students’ academic experiences in accord with their individual needs. Advisors have a wealth of knowledge about the opportunities available on campus, Boatmun explains, because the AAOC is designed as a centralized “clearinghouse” for academic programs, services and activities.
One of the first options available to students that AAOC advisors recommend is a two-hour, for-credit College Success course Boatmun says enrollment has increased from 10 percent of the freshman class to a current 70 percent of incoming freshmen who sign up to take the course. 
Incoming students also participate in a freshman convocation that serves to welcome first-generation families. SOSU administrators and faculty members don full academic regalia in a ceremony that with its formality conveys an understanding that the first year of college “isn’t 13th grade,” Boatmun says. 
With a student body of approximately 4,000, Boatmun explains that the AAOC implements several low-cost initiatives that yield significant results. The AAOC telephone outreach program, for instance, identifies 40 new students who may be at high risk of dropping out and with a once-a-week telephone call keeps those students on track.
First-year students who earn a 3.25 after the first semester are treated to a reception in their honor and receive a t-shirt to recognize their accomplishments. The AAOC also makes special recognition of the top 10 freshmen at the end of the year.
AAOC results are impressive.
“When the advising center opened, SOSU reported a 56 percent first-semester to third-semester retention rate for first-time, full-time freshmen. This compares to a five-year average of 60 percent. After the first year of operation, the rate increased to 60 percent, and after year two, it increased to 63 percent,” he continues. “Although final numbers are being prepared, preliminary numbers for the 2003 incoming class indicate that we can expect another two to three percent increase in retention this year.”
He says the national recognition that came along with the Noel-Levitz Retention Excellence Award was a great validation of the efforts of the AAOC. “Sometimes college campuses have a tendency to be isolated,” Boatmun explains. “We (can now) look at our program as a national leader.”

STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT NEW PALTZ RETENTION PROGRAM: Educational Opportunity Program Freshman Year Experience

Serious state budget cuts in 1995 eliminated an eight-year-old summer academic program designed to help incoming first-year students from underrepresented populations transition smoothly into college at SUNY New Paltz.
“That caused us to be very deliberate,” Lisa Chase, director of the SUNY New Paltz Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), says about the loss of the summer program. “That was the impetus that caused us to put together a comprehensive orientation period for incoming students. We had to decide what we could purposefully do,” she says.
The EOP Freshman Year Experience is the result of that decision.
Students are selected for the EOP Freshman Year Experience through a special admissions process. They are primarily low-income students who for various reasons are inadmissible through the general admissions process. Most are first-generation students, many are from inner-city high schools and some speak English as a second language.
Selections are based upon reference letters, students’ personal statements and academic transcripts. Chase adds that there is no bottom cut off for SAT scores and quickly points out that with these criteria the program has had plenty of successful students.
EOP Freshman Year Experience students participate in an initial summer orientation program that overlaps with orientation for the incoming general student population. “This gives them the feeling that they belong to a wider college community,” Chase says.
Simultaneously, EOP students take a seminar course for college credit that addresses issues directly relevant to the particulars of their situations. In “Key Issues in the Education of Underrepresented Students,” EOP students take advantage of what Chase describes as a “seminar configured as a platform for both in- and out-of-class activities.” Led by EOP advisors, this seminar addresses the academic aspects of higher education and also familiarizes students with tutoring, peer mentoring and creating an academic plan.
“We develop college success behaviors into more kinds of behavioral growth,” says Chase. “That includes building confidence in the classroom, connecting with peers in the classroom and coaching students in the best way (to navigate the process),” she says. In addition, study groups, career advising and mid-term evaluations enhance the EOP experience that operates under the auspices of the SUNY New Paltz division of Student Affairs with an annual budget of approximately $21,000.  
The efforts of those involved with the EOP Freshman Year Experience have paid off tremendously, resulting since 1995 in retention rates for EOP students above 80 percent. From the fall of 1998 through the fall of 2002, for instance, the EOP average retention rate was 85 percent versus 81 percent for non-EOP students.
 “EOP is the antithesis of the sink or swim concept,” Chase adds.


“You are on academic suspension — Happy Holidays!” That was the message heard by too many students who found themselves on academic probation after their first semester at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, says Scott Amundsen, associate director of Student Academic Services, which houses the Strategies for Academic Success program. In 1996, Amundsen explains, the UNC faculty senate decided to address this situation and find an alternative to immediate suspension for these probationary students. In 1998, a remediation course was developed to improve student study skills, but that endeavor, Amundsen says, turned out to be a tortuous semester-long project for both students and faculty to slog through. 
“We were getting ready to do away with it,” he says. All involved agreed a full semester was too long and that remediation was not the best way to approach the problem. Amundsen notes, for example, how unproductive it was to ask, “What happened?” to students with first semester averages under 1.5. “They’ve already had that conversation,” he explains. “You can focus on what’s right rather than what’s wrong. You can control motivation with positive energy.”
That is exactly what Strategies for Academic Success is designed to do. With a $40,000 budget in its current manifestation, all students placed on probation after their first semester must register for this non-credit course that begins the second week of the second semester. Groups of 20 students begin each eight-week class and are then divided into two groups of 10 to engage in conversations and journal writing, and focus heavily on their individual peak performances.
“(We ask) ‘What are you good at?’ and bring the best forward,” Amundsen says. In the course, students begin to set realistic goals for themselves and develop an interdependence on campus. “We give them an introduction to resources in a positive way,” Amundsen adds. “This is a strength-based motivation program.”
Based on the business concept of appreciative inquiry, for the duration of eight weeks, 300 students are urged to take control of their own situations and decide the individual directions they will take. Participants learn behavior modification techniques and by focusing on the positive develop different attitudes and demeanors in relation to their academic pursuits.
They also learn the direct correlation between class attendance and course grades. Those students who fail to attend one of the Strategies for Academic Success class meetings are automatically suspended, which demonstrates USG’s seriousness about the program, suggests to students that there are real consequences for their actions and motivates the remaining students, Amundsen says.
Attendance is generally not a problem, however, as the course generates excitement for the students who have the opportunity to figure out what they want to do and how to take advantage of their educational opportunities to reach their goals. For some students that may mean pursuing a two-year degree and for others that may mean sitting out of the whole educational process for a while. Such decisions are not equivalent to failure, because, as Amundsen notes, some students who didn’t make it are returning ready to start again a year later.  
The impact of Strategies for Academic Success has been significant. The numbers of participants eligible to re-enroll at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro have increased to 58 percent in 2002-2003 from 40 percent in the 1999-2000 academic year. Retention rates for participants has risen from 41 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2004. Amundsen adds that the program has become popular among the faculty as well — now interested instructors often have to be turned away.
Recognition of the program by the Noel-Levitz Excellence in Retention Award has added another dimension to the program, according to Amundsen. “It was great for the whole office,” he says. “We knew we had a good thing.” In addition to presenting the program to deans, provosts and other higher education administrators at the national conference in New Orleans, Amundsen has been invited to present the Strategies for Success Program in late October at the National Association for Multicultural Education in Kansas City, Mo.
“We surely weren’t expecting it,” he says. “The (Noel-Levitz) recognition is a blessing.” 

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