Keeping students in college and on track
Doing what it takes to help college students stay in school and graduate has never been more important. Minnesota's Private Colleges already have the best graduation rate in the state, but they aim to do even better. A variety of proactive measures help keep students on track.
A student in Augsburg College's weekend program recently returned to school after missing two semesters. "This student had bad luck — she lost her job and had two family members die around the same time," said the college's director of retention, Michele Kidwell. "It would have been a shame for her not to finish when she only needed five more classes to graduate." Kidwell went with the student to her department's office and found a faculty advisor who was able to help her figure out how to get back on track. "She later told me that she was so glad I reached out because she was feeling that she couldn't do it. Now she's excited about graduating next year," Kidwell said.
Other examples are less dramatic, but Kidwell knows a variety of challenges can stop students in their tracks. "We've had junior and senior students start to struggle as their coursework became more difficult. They need someone they can reach out to or who will reach out to them when things get rough."
Augsburg has zeroed in on quickly identifying those who may be having problems, including through tracking students whose accounts have been put on hold. Holds can be placed for a host of reasons including financial ones, failure to meet with an academic advisor, academic probation or registrar issues. Kidwell's office looks for a faculty or staff member who can step in and serve as an advocate for that student. "We take a case management approach and try to find champions for the student. Making sure that they have meaningful connections on campus is extremely important," she said.
Heeding red flags
The University of St. Thomas also proactively watches for students who are facing challenges through its Flag Program. Flag helps identify situations where intervention may be needed. It was instituted two years ago following an incident where an off-campus student holed up in his room for a semester and didn't attend classes. "His parents were very upset when he received poor grades for the semester and nobody had said anything," said John Krebsbach, associate dean for academic advising and special programs at St. Thomas who co-directs the program.
The Flag Committee — made up of about 10 staff who represent athletics, counseling, residence life, financial aid and other areas - meets bi-weekly to compare notes on students who may be in trouble and decides when action is needed. Krebsbach and Sr. Sharon Howell, assistant dean of students, talk almost daily to keep up with developing concerns. They also encourage faculty to let them know if they suspect a problem. "Our first contact with the student is usually by email or phone. If we don't get a response we try other routes," Krebsbach said. And when there is a potential health or safety issue, the next step may be to call a student's home.
For a student who is depressed, the intervention may result in getting the student into personal counseling — which is available on campus. In another example, the Flag Committee felt that a student was in the wrong major because the classes were proving too difficult. The student just stopped attending classes and his instructors did not know why. "We gave him a specific plan of action that included career counseling and assessments," Krebsbach said.
Through Flag, Krebsbach said they can frequently salvage the student's semester and get them back on track. "We are still small enough at St. Thomas so that faculty know who they can call when there's a problem. We maintain a personal touch with our faculty and with our students," he said.
Creating community among students
While retention efforts often focus on first-year students, Hamline University has also singled out transfer students for attention. Monita Mohammadian Gray, Hamline's director of retention and transfer student services — or her graduate assistant — meet with each transfer student to get to know their individual needs. "We talk about the students' transition to Hamline and connect them to campus resources they need to become more successful in their experience on a new college campus," Gray said.
In addition to an extended orientation, the university also schedules TRANSFERmation lunches where speakers provide students with resources and information about study abroad and internship opportunities, reading transcripts, graduation requirements, writing résumés and other topics. "The lunches create community, which is a big part of what makes students successful here," Gray said. "A student approached me after one of the recent lunches and said she had never felt more connected to a group of students than she had that day."
At Hamline, students take a series of surveys throughout their first academic year that ask questions about their expectations of college life related to grades, study skills, peer connections, academic abilities and self-management. The surveys are part of the Educational Benchmarking, Inc. MAP-Works (Making Achievement Possible) program. Each time students receive their results they also see how they compare to their peers. "It can help them realize that they may not be studying enough to perform at the level they desire or they haven't gotten involved enough," Gray said. "And seeing how they change from previous surveys makes a difference for them."
Hamline uses its existing Campus Colleagues program — staff who volunteer to connect with students in a first-year course — to extend the impact of MAP-Works, Gray said. "Talking about survey results gives the colleagues a focus for their conversations and is useful to students." Retention efforts are paying off: "We had an increase of more than three percent in our fall to spring semester retention rate among our first-year students," Gray said.
Strength in advising
At St. Olaf College, demand for the Student Support Services (SSS) program was noticeably up this year. The federally funded TRiO program for first-generation, low-income and disabled college students provides advising, supplemental instruction, leadership programs, workshops and a summer bridge program.
Kathy Glampe, who directs the program at St. Olaf, attributes some of the increased demand to the economic downturn. Many students are being affected by their parents' job situation, she said. "A few more of our students are now sending their student work money home, the SSS Student Advisory Board created a "buy/sell" textbook board to assist students with the rising cost of textbooks and more students are asking to borrow the calculators and textbooks we keep on hand."
Advising is where TRiO SSS most shines, Glampe said, because students always have someone to go to. Issues with school often occur when students experience a personal or family crisis. "We can help them through the process of managing school and their crisis so they can stay on track," she said.
The power of the program is not lost on students. "SSS has helped me stay in college because the advisors care about me as an individual and do everything in their power to see me succeed, Chang Dao Vang said. "The community within SSS is my support group and in some ways, my family away from home.". Another student, Maipacher Her, said "for the past two years, SSS has been the base of my academic support, financial guidance, and personal growth."
For more information on retention, see How Colleges Organize Themselves to Increase Student Persistence: Four-Year Institutions from the College Board.