How this college raised freshman retention 7 points in 2 years

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How this college raised freshman retention 7 points in 2 years

Colleges and universities have historically struggled to retain the first-year students who arrive on campus. So year after year, higher ed leaders revise their strategy to improve retention rates.


of students who enrolled in college for the first time in 2017 returned to their starting institution in 2018
of students who enrolled in college for the first time in 2017 returned to their starting institution in 2018

According to an annual report from the National Student Clearinghouse, these efforts are beginning to pay off. Seventy-four percent of students who enrolled in college for the first time in 2017 returned to their starting institution in 2018—up from 61% of first-year students who started in 2015 and persisted to 2016, the report reads.

Like other institutions, Southern Utah University (SUU) faced declining first-year student retention rates in recent years, writes Kelly Field for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2015, two-thirds (64%) of first-year students returned for their sophomore year.

Although the college already had several retention practices in place, the retention rate didn’t rebound. Campus leaders “were at a loss,” Jared Tippets, the chief retention officer and vice president of student affairs at SUU, told Field.

So in 2015, administrators began rebuilding a comprehensive first-year experience from scratch. In two years that followed, first-to-second year retention climbed seven percentage points, and as of 2018, it was on track to reach 74%.

Campus leaders distilled their retention strategy into 4 C’s: campus-wide, comprehensive, collaborative, and coordinated. “There’s so much territoriality in higher ed, and lots of silos,” says Tippets. “It takes a village to really get to where we want to be.”

Here are three components of the first-year experience SUU designed to boost student retention.

1. Orientation

Traditional orientation programs tend to lump together all new students for a crash course on study skills and campus navigation. But more colleges have learned they need “to create programs that are specific to the students who are coming to their campus,” says Joyce Holl, executive director of the Association for Orientation, Transition & Retention in Higher Education.

At SUU, student subgroups (like older students, veterans, and international students) can attend a separate orientation tailored to their needs. The university also accommodates students who may have difficulty meeting new friends. For example, when students arrive at orientation, they take a personality assessment to identify them as extroverts or introverts, Field writes. Once classes start, peer mentors invite shy students to club meetings based on their interests and offer to accompany them.

2. Campus engagement

First-gen and minority students are more likely to struggle with feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome that put them at risk of leaving school or transferring institutions. But connecting at-risk students with support is difficult—especially when students are unaware of the resources available to them.

Eric Kirby, assistant vice president for student affairs at SUU, shared how his in-depth work with Native American students helped him identify hidden causes of their disengagement from the university at EAB‘s CONNECTED Student Success Collaborative Summit in 2017. He realized that Paiute students were not using university resources intended for all Native American students because those resources were located in a “chapter house”—and “chapter house” is a Navajo term, not a Paiute term, so the Paiute students didn’t feel like the resources were intended for them.

3. General education

General education requirements can feel more like a laundry list of unrelated courses than a deliberate pathway towards academic and professional success. And the typical approach to general education creates classes that include two types of students with very different needs, SUU’s president Scott Wyatt told Inside Higher Ed in 2015. Students majoring in the topic and students who are just checking off a requirement end up in the same course, with the end result that neither is served particularly well.

So SUU launched a “supercourse” taught by eight professors from various departments that fulfilled all of a students’ gen ed requirements in one year. The program, Jumpstart GE, mirrors the way different disciplines work together in the real world. The class meets three hours a day, five days a week and covers 13 courses’ worth of information organized into six-week units.

Sources: National Student Clearinghouse report, 7/10/19; ConnectEd video, accessed 6/18/18; Field, Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/6/18; Koppenheffer, EAB blogs, 10/6/17; National Student Clearinghouse report, 6/12/17; Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 11/6/15

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