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Developing an undergraduate student retention strategic plan

August 9, 2023

Donna Mohr

Director of Student Retention, Lehigh University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

Historically, Lehigh University has achieved very strong first-year student retention, and four-year and six-year graduation rates, exceeding national averages for private, non-profit academic institutions. Our success is being tested by the new challenges introduced by the changing higher education landscape, the mental health crisis, and the aftermath of COVID-19.

Our students today are being challenged in ways we have never had to address before. The development of a comprehensive undergraduate student retention strategic plan is key to Lehigh’s continued ability to retain and graduate students at the high levels we have become accustomed to. Additionally, our Provost has invested significant resources in this area and is interested in improving our rates, particularly in the areas of closing our equity gaps and increasing our four-year graduation rate.

First, we needed to decide who would be involved in developing the plan and who would be held accountable for making sure the plan is implemented and assessed periodically. Consequently, a student retention council, composed of a dynamic group of faculty and staff across the campus community, was formed. The charge of the council is to work collaboratively to assess our current student retention and progression practices and to develop and communicate data-driven recommendations for improving our rates to Lehigh’s senior leadership team. The recommendations will focus on increasing our overall four-year graduation rate and closing our equity gaps.

Progress made:
Step 1: Assessment

  • Data gathering/analysis
  • Reassess previous initiatives
  • Evaluate current processes/practices

Step 2: Define/refine goals

  • Improve:
  • Student sense of belonging
  • First-year retention rate
  • Four-year graduation rate
  • Close equity gaps

Step 3: Define tactics/timeline to achieve goals

Step 4: Define progress/success metrics

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We are still completing the assessment phase, but have made significant progress. Thus far, we have identified a number of initiatives previously implemented at Lehigh and are in the process of reassessing if these programs are still producing their intended outcomes. 

The Council has also made progress in identifying our equity gaps, which is a critical step in our strategic planning process. We averaged the firstyear retention and graduation rate data over a sixyear period and then broke the data out by gender, financial status, race/ethnicity, and firstgeneration status to identify where our equity gaps exist and how significant the gaps are. 

To help us determine where we should think about prioritizing our efforts in the strategic plan, a scale was created to rank the gaps as negligible, moderate, or significant.

Although there is still much work to be done, our goal is to have the plan drafted by the end of the summer/early fall timeframe.

Reflections: 

I have thoroughly enjoyed participating in the EAB Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship program. I learned a great deal from attending the bi-weekly sessions and networking with the other program participants. EAB’s Student Success Best Practices Library also provided critical resources to assist our newly formed Council in our strategic planning process.

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