Good assessment is cyclic; it begins with the articulation of clear goals and the implementation of strategies for goal attainment; assesses impact, and uses the results to effect program and service improvements.
Our retention work at St. Lawrence University has been reflective of this cyclic planning-assessment process for nearly a decade. Our systematic, comprehensive and collaborative approach has led to significant improvements in retention: Freshman-to-Sophomore retention rates have increased by more than 5 percentage points, now being at the 90% mark, similar to other highly selective institutions. The University's four, five and six-year graduation rates have also increased significantly during these years, up by over 10% over the past decade.
Several other measures provide indirect evidence of the progress being made: According to senior surveys and our in-house first-year student "college success questionnaire", overall student satisfaction has continuously increased. The number of students on academic suspension has been cut significantly, and the percent of students placed on academic probation has declined as well.
This would not have been possible without the strong support of the University's top leadership, including its Board of Trustees, and the dedication and work of a large number of administrative departments and faculty across the institution.
A 15-person retention task force, appointed in 2001-02, studied seven major areas that affect retention: academic advising, admission & recruitment, academically at-risk students, faculty & academically related issues, financial aid, residential & social issues and students of color. The task force issued a comprehensive report, including over 130 recommendations and developed and implemented several trial strategies. Over time, most of the recommendations were subsequently implemented due in large measure to the support Senior Staff provided.
In 2002-2003, the Enrollment Committee of the Board of Trustees formed a Retention Subcommittee to be involved in more strategic ways with the on-campus retention task force. A second, smaller task force (drawing from membership of the original group) took a research-based approach in 2003-04 in specifically studying students who left the institution over the previous 4 years.
Some of the major challenges that emerged in the work of the first task force related to the following three issues: a) isolation/transportation, b) social and residential issues, and c) academically unsuccessful students. The institution has made tremendous progress on these issues.
In addition, the institution has been specifically emphasizing the role of advising at St. Lawrence and has added student engagement efforts in the sophomore year, as part of a four-institution Teagle Grant collaborative.
Listed below are some of the major issues the institution has addressed, which yielded the greatest positive impacts on future retention:
- Improved academic advising. Academic Advising has become a nearly full-time position at the Associate Dean level. An on-line registration and advising system has been developed (APR) to aid students in engaging in more self-reflection and to encourage purposeful choices in structuring their course of study. Other related actions implemented include: use of on-line registration including a better process to avoid course close-outs, and a degree-audit system, which helps alert students to any insufficiencies regarding progress toward degree; an academic majors fair; and early contacts with students by the Career Services office. In 2008-09, the Associate Dean of Academic Advising also implemented a Sophomore Mentor program, which allows students who want to switch their advisor in their second year to do so in coordination with a cadre of designated sophomore faculty mentors who also meet on a regular basis to discuss how to use the advising process (in general) as a means of increased student reflection.
- Half-unit Sophomore Courses. The Sophomore Year is often referred to as the "sophomore slump" or a year of lower student engagement. As part of the Teagle Grant Initiative, to pursue new ideas and approaches to increase sophomore reflection and intentionality of their academic and career journey, 4 faculty have started to offer a series of 1/2 unit sophomore seminars as special-topics courses in their respective academic departments, beginning with the Fall of 2008. These seminars are characterized by two features: a) they focus on questions of personal values and directions and b) involve students responding to course materials that encourage them to examine their own direction and where education is taking them. These are small classes - enrollments of 4-11 students. Examples include a course in Philosophy entitled "Meaning in Life" where students read and discuss Plato's Republic, a course taught by the Academic Dean on "Dewey's Democracy and Education", an Economics Course on 2 economists and social thinkers of the 20th century of opposite views, and an English course on Willa Cather's "The Professor's House".
- Implementation of a multi-level early warning system. About 3 weeks into the academic semester, the Coordinator of Academic Support sends an email to all faculty, asking for referrals of names of students who have irregular attendance in classes, demonstrate weak performance, or appear to have some other problems (including financial worries) that may detract from the academic focus. The Coordinator of Academic Support then follows up with those so identified and refers/connects them with appropriate University resources, as needed. An Advising Team (comprised of representatives from academic support/advising, student life and coaches) meets weekly to look into "early warning" signs and to address collaboratively student issues. Finally, the Office of Institutional Research conducts an annual student satisfaction survey with all first and second-year students as a general student scan and to provide the university with means to act on emerging areas of student discontent in a timely manner.
- Increased academic support for at-risk students. St. Lawrence has dedicated two positions with at an FTE of 1.5 (up from 1 FTE) to provide at-risk students with academic support: The Coordinator of Academic Achievement works exclusively with students who are on academic probation or have received mid-term warnings. A process has been put into place that requires these students to meet one-on-one with the Academic Achievement Coordinator. The Coordinator of Academic Support (a part-time administrative/part-time teaching position) focuses on the early warning system and works with all other students/problems. In addition, special workshops - such as on "time management" - have been added to teach students study skills. The institution's data show that these efforts have large pay-offs.
- Recruiting students who fit St. Lawrence better. This includes seeking out students who are prepared for an academically demanding situation and who know what we are ahead of time. For example, the admissions office strongly encourages prospective students to visit campus and interview with a counselor, even before applying for admissions, and admissions brochures and information try to communicate as accurately as possible SLU to minimize incorrect expectations of enrolling students.
- Improved transportation to and from the airport, major bus station, and in-town. Canton's rural location makes it challenging for students without personal vehicles to travel home during the break or even get to more local places such as the supermarket or a mall. According to data collected by the Office of Institutional Research, transportation was the single lowest item in terms of student satisfaction in spring 2001, although considered as being of high priority. Thus, the University developed a break bus transportation system and heavily subsidized taxi transportation (including low-cost taxi service to the airport).
- Addressing students' financial concerns. (This is important for St. Lawrence, where 16% of its 2280 FTE undergraduate student body are Pell grant recipients and where 80% of all students receive financial aid.) Research indicates that students' financial worries have an impact on their level of academic performance. The Financial Aid Office and the Student Financial Services Office have strengthened their communication processes to minimize bureaucratic stresses on students. On-campus employment options have been made more attractive by lifting employment restrictions for first-year students. Workshops are offered to first-year students and seniors to address financial topics, including financial planning and personal budgeting.
- Other social/residential improvements. This included giving the refurbishment of residence halls greater priority, offering more late night social options for students and adding the "First-Year Cup", a program for First-Year students, which encourages them to attend co-curricular events such as concerts, lectures, plays or to participate in intramural events. The program enjoys high popularity and our data reveals that students more heavily involved in first-year cup activities are more satisfied with the institution and find it easier to get involved on campus.
- Added assessment instruments and analyses. Including regularly updated comprehensive retention benchmarks; a student satisfaction survey (administered annually with all first and second-year students) and more detailed internal data documentation.