Let me give it to you straight – WCSU is struggling to improve our retention rates. As long as I have been at this university (since 2012), we have been trying to figure out why so many students leave prior to degree completion and why so many leave after the first year. We have tried numerous strategies, each time hanging our hopes on a new effort, hoping to crack the code. Here is the list, since 2012:
We had a limited FY program (not required, so only partial enrollment). Part of that program in my first two years here included cohorting of classes for FY student (they took three together). Though the idea was a good one, it did not have the desired effect. Without full community backing, the impression among the students was that they were being punished in some way. Among the students involved it had a (very small) negative impact on retention. We stopped doing that.
We now have a full FY program (required as part of our general education curriculum). Departments have developed courses that act as extended orientations to the discipline, which seems to have improved our students time to degree completion (that number has been moving up from 48.9% to 53% starting with the 2012 cohort). This, combined with published four-year plans and a general education curriculum that has fewer hidden requirements than the prior version, all seem to be moving us in the right direction on graduation rates.
Unfortunately, the FY program and the related efforts did not improve our retention rates which hovered around 73% for years, with one up-year – we hit 75.5% in 2019, only to crash to 69.9% in 2020. That is definitely a COVID impact. We’ll see how recovery goes.
I’ve been paying attention to our data, and the number one predictor of student retention at WCSU is High School GPA. Students with an 85% or higher high school GPA tend to be retained in the 80% or higher range (often as high as 85%, which is a great number for a regional public comprehensive university). That number drops immediately at 84% high school GPA (down 6-10%) and with a pretty linear correlation with each point dropped. A perfectly nice B/B- high schooler is at a 10% or higher risk of being lost in the first year than the solid B/B+ or higher. This data isn’t just WCSU, it is a national trend. This is data we can act upon.
And we have. We’ve launched a peer mentor program to address students in that B/B- category. We’re hoping just a little support from their friends will help them stay. A group of folks from tutoring, the library faculty, the first-year coordinator, academic advising, orientation, and our alternate admissions team gathered together to make a plan. They agreed on a training plan for the peer mentors and recruited a diverse group of students to do this outreach. They are now analyzing what worked and where to improve for next year, and the team is expanding. We won’t know the impact on retention until the fall, but this work has been exciting, and it feels good to take action and measure results.
With this program launched, there is more data to consider, and it is time we do so. The director of institutional research has been running some queries on a few areas variables that seem to be related to retention. The two reports he just sent my way were startlingly clear. High school GPA is predictive across majors (not just as a general indicator of losing a student): the higher percentage of students in the major with an 85% high school GPA or above, the higher the retention rate. Not surprising, based on what we knew before this point, but here is where it gets interesting. There is a striking exception to this relationship, and it occurs in a major that is organized as a very close cohort. The students who started in that cohort, and were not fully successful in their original major, stayed at WCSU even when they had to change their major.
What can we do in light of this data? Perhaps a deeper dive into the reasons why some degrees are attracting more students with lower High School GPAs and making a more specific series of supports in those majors? Maybe. Or maybe we should think about how to create cohorts in programs where they aren’t naturally occurring. Maybe this is the glue that will help the students succeed. With all of the national data the links student persistence and transparent pathways through degrees, cohorts might help us focus those pathways even further. For a majority commuter campus, cohorts might also help our students connect with peers and feel connected to the community. Cohorts provide exciting possibilities that I’m keen to explore with my colleagues.
The second piece of data was about math. Math success is not a new problem and our math department has tried numerous strategies to try to improve student outcomes. They are working hard, incorporating new technologies and trying new approaches. Nevertheless, we have a persistent problem.
A review of five years of data shows us the following:
- A shocking number of students are placed into Intermediate Math (credit bearing, pre-general education math): Nearly 50%. This is true for students with above an 85% HS GPA and those below it.
- Students who earn a D, F, or withdraw from any math class in their first year are retained at a rate between 63-68%. Those who happened to fail Intermediate Math with embedded remediation are retained at a rate below 50%.
- Students who fail any math class in their first year are 20% more likely to have a high school GPA below 85% than those who pass.
- Students who pass any math class (including the one with embedded remediation) are retained at about an 82-84% rate.
- The retention rate for students who take no math class in their first year, drops back down to a 70%.
Given all of this, we might want to re-think our math strategies. We need to dig deeper into the patterns of who is ending up with the D, F, or W in those first courses, to see if we have a few other predictors besides HS GPA. We appear to need better placement strategies than those we are currently using. We might even need a prep-course, prior to placement testing. We probably need a differentiated delivery of our curriculum based on a combination of variables, not just our placement tests. We may need some kind of intersession process to keep students from failing or withdrawing in the first place. We’ve tried variations on each of these in the past, but like the FY program done half-way, it hasn’t worked fully. It is time to focus and develop a plan for better math outcomes. Those outcomes are so directly related to our retention rates that it is imperative that we do so.
Yes, I’m staring at the data and trying to imagine next steps. I know I have a community of colleagues who want more for our students. I know I have a community of colleagues who are eager to find better paths. I’m hoping my colleagues will ask even better questions of our data, and embrace trying new things as a result. I hope those new things are coordinated, measured, and refined as we continue to learn more about our students. I hope all of this, because one thing is certain, staring at the data is not enough.