For local colleges, it’s not a matter of attracting students, it’s keeping them

Retaining students at McKendree University

McKendree University in Lebanon is making extensive efforts to retain its students
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McKendree University in Lebanon is making extensive efforts to retain its students

The toughest battle leaders of universities face isn’t getting students to sign up for classes.

It’s getting them to stay.

James Dennis, president of McKendree University, said most students today don’t drop out because they can’t cut the classroom work.

“If they’ve made it this far to be accepted and enrolled, we know they can do the work,” Dennis said. “It’s the big changes in their life — moving away from home, making new friends and fending for themselves more than ever before — that cause students to quit.”

The phenomenon of students getting cold feet about college life and dropping out of school shortly after arrival is a problem for universities across the country. It even has its own name in the education business: melt. As in immediately after the storm there were 10 inches of snow on the ground, but after the melt, only 7 were left.

The key to keeping students on campus, local school leaders say, is keeping them engaged. By doing that, school leaders can keep teenagers from letting a heat-of-the-moment decision change the course of their education and their life.

If they’ve made it this far to be accepted and enrolled, we know they can do the work. It’s the big changes in their life — moving away from home, making new friends and fending for themselves more than ever before — that cause students to quit.

James Dennis, president, McKendree University

According to U.S. News & World Report, which does an annual study on the best colleges and universities in the country, about one-third of students who enroll as a freshman at institutions across the country don’t return for their sophomore year.

Locally, the three metro-east four-year universities have all added staff and programs in the last four years to fight the phenomenon. Statistically, they do better than average when it comes to convincing students to stick around.

But they’re all still trying to get even better.

Mckendree University’s freshman retention rate, according to the report, is 77.3 percent, about 10 percent higher than the national average for the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which data was available. Lindenwood University, which is represented in the metro-east by a campus in Belleville and an extension in Collinsville although it’s based in St. Charles, has a 71 percent retention rate. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has a retention rate of 70.8 percent. according to the report.

Kevin Thomas was hired as hired as director of retention and student success by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville four years ago, when school leaders decided they needed to do something to address the issue of losing students.

In that time, Thomas said the freshman retention rate at SIU has increased about 5 percent. He said it is currently 74.44 percent.

“That works out to about 120 students who are staying in school every year to continue their education,” Thomas said. “That’s 120 people not paying student loans without getting their education and 120 people who have a better chance to be a productive part of society.”

McKendree vice president of admission and financial aid Chris Hall said the university attempts to engage students on several levels to keep them in a good frame of mind and help them fit in.

Hall said there are several key milestones in the battle to keep students in school. The first is Labor Day weekend, when students have their first chance to go home to visit after school starts. If they make it through that, the next hurdle is the first month of school. Finally, Christmas break is a threat to convince students things are easier at home.

“Every one of those hurdles we can make it past, there is a better chance students are going to put down roots and stay,” Hall said.

Every one of those hurdles we can make it past, there is a better chance students are going to put down roots and stay.

Chris Hall, vice president of admissions, McKendree University

Renee Porter, acting provost at Lindenwood University, said Lindenwood is intent on keeping students focused.

“Lindenwood University-Belleville has many resources and intervention approaches to help students adapt to college life,” Porter said. “The nature of a small liberal-arts college with most classes less than 30 students (is that) relationships are quickly developed with faculty, advisers, staff and students.

“Freshmen participate in a First Year Experience program which gives many opportunities to meet classmates and develop friendships,” Porter said. Students’ advisers are faculty in their majors, so many opportunities exists to discuss issues in the class as well with advising appointments. Additional resources made available to students are the Academic Success Center and the Student Counseling Resource Center. These two areas provide tutoring, mentoring and counseling to help students address the stresses college students face.”

Thomas said retaining students not only helps keep the tuition and room-and-board money coming in. Some states have considered basing the amount of financial support they give public universities on retention rates.

McKendree tries to get students engaged. In addition to organizing social events during the first weeks of school to keep freshmen from sitting in their dorm rooms by themselves, everyone from the cafeteria staff to the president of the school is engaged in making sure they’re doing well, according to Hall.

“There are always going to be bumps in the road,” Hall said. “It’s how we manage the way those bumps are handled that makes the difference.”

Hall said instructors are trained to watch for students who suddenly stop showing up for class. Coaches, cafeteria workers and every other university employee is urged to pass on the information to the right people if they notice a student is withdrawing socially from school activities or if they just don’t seem happy.

Lindenwood director of retention Suzanne Jones agreed that early detection of problems for students is the key to solving them.

“If a student is thinking about dropping out of college, they ‘check out’ from all aspects of their college life,” Jones said. “They perform poorly on classwork and exams. Students give up on their outside-of-class activities like sports or clubs. They retreat socially and only hang out with a small group of friends. Commonly making frequent visits home or with high school friends is an obvious indicator that an undergraduate wants t o leave and is not feeling connected to the college.”

Three McKendree students interviewed at random all said they they, for one reason or another, seriously contemplated quitting school in their first semester of college.

▪  Carissa Lorenz, a sophomore from New Lennox, said she had a period of time during her freshman year when she thought about quitting school and going home.

A player on the school’s volleyball team, she became concerned when a coaching change made the future of her program uncertain.

“I looked at a couple of other schools and I thought about not playing,” Lorenz said. “But I’ve played volleyball since I was in fifth grade, so I couldn’t really imagine that.”

In the end, a new coach was hired, the team came back together and Lorenz said she is happy she decided to stay with her school, team and teammates.

▪  Hannah Dean, a sophomore from Bloomington, said she is shy and it took her a while to start making friends when she arrived on campus last year. She went home and told her mother, a single parent trying to put two kids through college, that maybe it would be better if she came home and went to community college.

“It was hard being away because my mom is my best friend and I tell her everything,” Dean said. “She told me not to worry, that we’d make things work, but that I couldn’t leave McKendree because it was my dream college.”

Dean joined a sorority and has taken part in an international outreach program. She said those things helped her make friends and, suddenly, she realized she was where she needed to be.

▪  Chase Phillips, a freshman from Sandoval, said he is a commuter student. One reason he chose McKendree is its location. But he said he lost many of his high school friends to far-away schools, and he admitted that sometimes he’s wondered if he should have joined them.

McKendree requires freshmen participate in a community service program. He found the responsibility daunting. But, ultimately, completing it helped him that he fits in.

“The first week it was really difficult,” Phillips said. “The community service we’re required to do was a bit intimidating. But it wasn’t as tough as I thought it was going to be, and after that things started to come together.”

Phillips said he met a couple of new friends at the event and they’ve been inseparable ever since.

SIUE didn’t have an early-warning system about troubled students when Thomas was hired. But it has one now, called Starfish. the program helps school employees get struggling students the assistance they need to engage in college life.

“If students start to miss class or have other issues, their instructor can send us a note and we’ll intervene,” Thomas said. “It has a place where they can give us notes about what’s going on and suggestions for how to address the problem.”

SIUE has also streamlined its counseling program to make sure students stay with the same academic adviser each time they come in to discuss their education plans. That not only gives the student some continuity in goal-setting, it gives them a familiar face to seek out if they have issues they want to discuss.

Thomas said SIUE’s switch from being a commuter school to one that offers dorms and other full-time services has helped the retention issue.

“The campus culture has really transformed,” Thomas said. “People want that full college experience and we offer that now. People used to say that homecoming wasn’t a big deal here. But we’ve done a lot of things to improve that, too, and I think people really like it.”

While the switch to college life is an important transition for a teen, Jones said parents don’t have to let their kids sink or swim on their own.

“I would recommend that all parents have their student sign a FERPA (Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act) waiver so parents can have access to their child’s information,” Jones said. “Parents and students should create a communication plan to openly discuss classes, professors, grades, campus life, activities, and responsibilities. Maybe they could share a phone call, FaceTime or Skype a couple of times a week to maintain that open line of communication.”

He added: “Students know what it takes to do well in school. But they do not always employ those strategies. Parents should encourage their child to achieve their goals, but also make them feel accountable for their decision-making.”