Taking a Holistic Approach to Retention By Cheryl D. FieldsLAWRENCE, KansasThe University of Kansas is well-known for its tough Jayhawks basketball team and stellar programs in aerospace engineering and accounting. In recent months, however, the university has earned a reputation as an institution where many students of color are excelling at a rate that has outpaced their peers. Campus officials credit HAWK Link, a freshman retention program that currently boasts an 87 percent retention rate, for this phenomenon. Ever since HAWK Link won this year’s Noel-Levitz Retention Excellence Award, the university has pumped more money into the program. As well, minority enrollment at the university is up by 2.3 percent, and enrollment in HAWK Link is up by more than 52 percent over last year, according to Robert N. Page Jr., who oversees the project in his capacity as the university’s director of multicultural affairs. Program coordinators Natalie Lucas and Teresa Clouch manage HAWK Link’s daily operations.When the program was launched in 1998, freshmen retention rates among minority students were a woeful 12 percent lower than that of other freshmen. By employing a combination of orientation, mentoring and tutoring programs, as well as information sessions covering topics such as career counseling, financial aid and academic advising, the program has successfully raised retention rates of participants to 6 percentage points above that of the average freshman on the campus, which is 81 percent. Clouch and Lucas believe the program’s comprehensive approach to retention is the key to its success. Rather than operating in isolation, HAWK Link is interconnected with several other retention efforts on the campus and enlists involvement from faculty, administrators and students. The process begins the moment a new student sets foot on the campus, if not before, and continues throughout the freshman year. The bulk of HAWK Link’s financial support flows out of state operating funds, but in addition, the program attracts support from the chancellor’s office, the provost, the dean of students and student affairs.For Alisa Lewis, a junior from East St. Louis, Ill., who is majoring in architectural engineering and minoring in math, the HAWK Link students and staff have become like extended family. “HAWK Link made me feel like I was a part of something, and when you feel like you are a part of something, you have a reason to stay,” she says.HAWK Link “is an academic-based program,” Clouch says. One of the program’s primary missions is to help students to identify and connect with all of the resources they need to succeed as first-year students. Incoming freshmen who already know what they intend to major in are linked with the academic resources specific to their majors. Those who are undecided are connected to resources designed to assist them in selecting a major.“The academic success programs were really important for me because they helped me get in touch with the resources on campus,” Lewis says. HAWK Link also helps students identify faculty and/or peer mentors, usually from within their same field of study. The peer mentor program is known as StEp, an acronym for Students Together Excelling in Education as Peers. StEp offers tutoring services as well.Sophomore Krys Cole says the faculty-mentor component proved invaluable during her freshmen year. “I knew coming in that I wanted to be a Spanish major,” Cole says. But the Spanish adviser she had been assigned to was new to the job and wasn’t of much assistance. Fortunately, her faculty adviser stepped in to help her plot a program of study that met her needs. The faculty-mentor component of the program also has proven valuable to non-traditional students, many of who are older adults with jobs and families. Having faculty-mentors puts these students in relationships with someone who is more of a peer, instead of someone who is only a few years removed from high school.Another way in which HAWK Link helps students is by urging students to request mid-term grade checks. The university does not generally require instructors to produce mid-year grade reports, a practice that can have adverse consequences for some students. The HAWK Link program encourages students to work with a mentor or adviser to assess their mid-term performance and determine whether they will need tutoring or other assistance to improve performance prior to the issuing of final grades.Evaluation surveys reveal that most of the HAWK Link students who decide not to return after the freshman year do so for reasons related to poor academic fit rather than financial difficulties or poor grade performance, Page says, which is a shift from the way things used to be.“We do follow up with students over the summer,” he says, adding that several of the students contacted this past summer simply needed to be reminded of registration deadlines. Although HAWK Link was created to boost the academic performance of students of color, its success is attracting a growing number of other students as well. Today, roughly eight percent of students participating in the program are not people of color, Clouch says. Many of these are first-generation college students. “We do target minority students,” Lucas says, but because HAWK Link is an integral part of all recruitment, outreach and orientation activities, any student who might be in need of help knows the program is there to help. “If a majority student is interested in the program, we take them,” Clouch says.HAWK Link participants end the freshman year with a graduation ceremony. Eventually, Page hopes the program will be able to offer scholarships, but meanwhile, the graduation program is a way of encouraging students to continue their degree pursuits. “For now we give them the ceremony as an incentive to help motivate them for the year ahead,” he says.
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