Studying why part of a college or university’s student body drops out or fails, and then implementing programs to retain students seems like something every institution would do. Two educators from St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y., were surprised to find out that wasn’t the case when they attended the fifth annual National Symposium on Student Retention held in Buffalo, N.Y., last week.
“One of the things that was overarching in terms of questions and feedback is that a lot of the institutions were wrought with resistance in terms of getting buy-in to do some of the programs,” said Monica Michalski, assistant dean of freshman studies and academic enhancement. “We are very fortunate because we have top down support — from our president, board of trustees, our vice presidents, faculty, staff and administration down to our security. We’re all involved in this together. It’s commitment and support.”
Michalski and colleague Steven Catalano, director of institutional research and planning at St. Francis, presented a seminar titled, “Improving Student Persistence and Success: A Data-Driven Approach,” which had approximately 30 attendees. Catalano said one of the attendees was a basketball coach who has been asked by his university to develop programs, policies and practices for retention, but had been given no real direction from his school’s administration.
“We created our retention initiatives from scratch ourselves,” said Catalano. “What this conference is showing us is this is going on in many colleges throughout the country. It’s very important to compare notes.”
The symposium was put on by the Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange (CSRDE) based at the University of Oklahoma. Founded in 1994, CSRDE conducts annual retention studies of two-year and four-year institutions. The symposium is held each autumn to provide representatives of colleges and universities opportunities to network and learn about each other’s retention initiatives.
At St. Francis, a private undergraduate institution with 2,500 students, Michalski said approximately 43 percent of the freshman class is made up of minority students, not including foreign students. Retention initiatives take into account student diversity and the unique needs of all students, she said. She noted that second-year retention for the 2008-09 freshman class was 80 percent. In addition, classes that entered in ’02 and ’03 had a higher graduation rate among Hispanic students than Caucasians.
The St. Francis presentation reflected data gathered over the course of six semesters from their 2003 cohort. Data included ethnicity; family background; whether the student was the first in the family to attend college; family support (both financial and emotional); whether the student entered with an intended major; and what the student’s expectations were for the college experience. They utilized traditional enrollment data as well as utilizing the College Student Inventory (CSI) from the Noel-Levitz enrollment management consulting firm.
“We used data in order to create these initiatives,” Michalski said. She added that in institutions where retention initiatives are met with resistance, it is crucial to assemble data to gain accurate perspective on the issues. Also, while programs should address overall needs of the student body, they cannot be cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all. The diversity of the student population must be taken into consideration.
In addition to gathering and assessing data, Michalski said her department also utilizes a holistic approach including motivation assessments. She credited much of their successes to a mandatory freshman seminar, a weekly one-hour seminar of no more than 30 students each that helps students understand what it means not only to be a college student but also be part of a college community. The college also has intervention programs for students who need additional assistance.
The seminar instructors are freshman academic advisers and the staff reflects the diversity of the student population. “We talk about things such as emotional intelligence, study skills, learning styles and how each student processes information,” Michalski said. “How to stay engaged, how to be involved.”
Other workshops included “Early Alert and Warning Programs: An Intentional Approach to Ensuring Student Success and Persistence” and “Targeted Intervention for At-Risk First-Time College Students and Transfers.” Michalski and Catalano estimated there were about 500 people in attendance.
“At St. Francis, our students are doing well across ethnicity. It has a lot to do with our approach to meeting with students one-to-one. It’s about the whole person,” Michalski said. “Using data to inform your decisions. We’re mission-focused but data-driven.
“You need to assess them. You need to show there’s a need and you need to show the outcomes of it. And you need to have buy-in, commitment and support for the retention programs.”