The State of Retention
AUSTIN, Texas — In the academic world, where importance in the institutional pecking order often can be measured by how much money officials are willing to spend on a certain program, rarely a peep is heard these days about retention.College and university administrators traditionally have preferred to spend their money on a much flashier issue — recruitment of new students — rather than its ho-hum poorer cousin, retention.But here in the land of Hopwood, at the nation’s largest institution, University of Texas at Austin administrators are taking a keen interest in keeping the minority students they do manage to attract despite setbacks caused by the court case.University officials say they’ve poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into retention efforts such as the five-year-old Gateway program, which will provide tutoring, academic advising and peer counseling to 180 incoming freshmen for two years.“There’s more interest on our campus for retention programs,” says Dr. Margarita Arellano, the 50,000-student university’s associate dean of students for retention, adding that most of those were launched in the past five years.Currently, nearly one in seven freshman students here at the University of Texas at Austin participate in some sort of retention program. Still, Arellano insists that “we are not reaching as many students as we should.”Higher education experts around the country agree that interest in student retention has reached an all-time high. Yet there is a growing frustration among retention experts in the field that many colleges and universities either lack the will or the funds to develop truly effective programs.“There’s only a small number of schools that have viable retention models,” says Dr. James Anderson, vice provost for undergraduate affairs and professor of counselor education at North Carolina State University. “Most schools have retention efforts and activities. There’s a real difference between schools that are models and others.”Anderson and other experts on the subject contend that higher education’s commitment to retention is complicated further by an impending enrollment boom on American campuses and an increasingly more hostile climate in the United States toward anything and everything associated with affirmative action.Dr. John Gardner, the former director of the nationally regarded First Year Experience program at the University of South Carolina, says there’s a misconception that retention efforts are solely intended for minorities.In fact, he says, most retention programs benefit all students but the current climate inhibits schools from expanding their programs. “The majority of students who benefit from retention efforts are White,” Gardner says. Gardner, now a senior fellow of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, believes many schools have failed to build retention programs that will keep clip with student enrollment increases.A record 14.9 million Americans enrolled in higher education courses this fall — a figure projected to jump 10 percent in the next 10 years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.And Education Department officials say that enrollment leap of 1.5 million more students between 1999 and 2009 will come at a time when many colleges and universities already are at full capacity.“The numbers of students on campus are up, but there’ll be significant attrition if more isn’t done to support those increases,” Gardner says.Nevertheless, Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C., contends that colleges and universities’ commitment to retention seems to be holding steady.“I haven’t seen any evidence that institutions are reducing their commitment to retention,” Merisotis says, pointing to a $65 million funding increase that Congress approved last year for federal TRIO programs as evidence.The additional funding includes a $30 million increase in outreach, counseling and educational support through TRIO and a new $35 million initiative to help disadvantaged students. Part of that money will fund the Educational Opportunity Program, which sponsors campus-based initiatives designed to improve access and retention of low-income and educationally disadvantaged students.Dr. Gwendolyn J. Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, concurs that institutions’ commitment to student retention has not lessened.However, she acknowledges that retention programs are not as high on the priority list of the nation’s college and university administrators because the market is flush with Americans clamoring to get into college.“We’re in a different climate now than when institutions were struggling to maintain their enrollments,” Dungy says, adding that retention remains an important issue “whatever the prevailing climate.” Dr. Randi Levitz, co-founder and senior executive of Noel-Levitz, a national enrollment management and retention consulting company, agrees. Having consulted with more than 600 colleges and universities on retention matters, Noel-Levitz has seen consistent growth in institutional demand for retention consulting, according to Levitz.Launched in 1984, Noel-Levitz initially found commercial success in recruiting and retention consulting, which included work with colleges and universities that had secured federal funding for their campuses under the Equal Opportunity Program. The organization, which has 75 employees, later added financial aid management to the recruiting and retention consulting, allowing the firm to position itself as a full-range enrollment management consulting company. “Retention is the most efficient means to maintain revenues,” Levitz says, meaning that schools typically don’t make up lost revenues resulting from student dismissals by enrolling additional freshmen. Unless a school is growing its enrollment, freshman enrollments remain consistent from year-to-year for an institution. And Levitz believes that college and university administrators have enough experience to know that high dropout and failure rates can have a detrimental effect on their college recruiting campaigns. “If you send too many students home, recruitment becomes more difficult,” she says, adding that high school students become discouraged about an institution when they see their friends failing to remain at that campus. While funding by individual schools for retention efforts remains limited, Levitz says there are signs of “stepped up interest in retention” around the nation.Attendance at her firm’s annual national conference on retention, for example, has been higher in the past two years than it has been throughout the conference’s 13-year history. This past July, roughly 1,230 people attended the conference.Considered the nation’s most popular retention conference, the Noel-Levitz event recorded its highest attendance the previous year when some 1,240 faculty, staff and administrators went to the gathering.Still, experts say, spending on retention programs typically comes second to funds set aside for recruiting and admissions. “What constrains colleges and universities is that it’s easier to funnel dollars to recruiting,” Levitz says, adding that limited funding has not dampened interest in retention. “We’re seeing a lot more emphasis on freshman year programs and peer-to-peer advising.”Gardner agrees that more and more freshman year and peer advising initiatives are emerging around the country — but he says there still aren’t nearly enough of those types of programs.He recently received a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust to evaluate retention programs for college freshman. He plans to track those programs and create benchmarks for evaluating their effectiveness.Dr. Clinita Ford, founder of the first national conference on Black student retention, argues that schools — especially historically Black institutions — rarely have paid more than lip service to retention programs and devoted serious resources to them.Too many institutions, she says, still keep retention an isolated part of their institutional ethos when, in reality, it should permeate campus culture. “Retention efforts work best when all faculty members and staff take responsibility,” she says. Bright Spots on The HorizonEven amid the current preoccupation with affirmative action, burgeoning enrollment and sometimes still-scarce state resources, experts say the retention picture has several bright spots.Gardner, while critical of the South Carolina system he works for, notes that several other state university systems such as Georgia and North Carolina are pushing their schools to program more retention initiatives. He says support for retention programs at South Carolina schools, including the First-Year Experience program, have developed from planning by individual campuses rather than from state leaders.“I see in South Carolina a significant reluctance by the legislature to fund higher education to do the things [the state] needs to do,” Gardner says. Retention experts point to a recent initiative in North Carolina that pairs enrollment growth planning with beefed up retention programs on seven University of North Carolina system campuses as forward-looking.North Carolina officials report that over the next 10 years, their schools will see 48,000 additional students — a 30 percent jump. The bulk of that enrollment growth will take place on the seven campuses.Those schools — five historically Black institutions, a Native American-serving institution and one predominantly White institution — are: North Carolina Central University, North Carolina A&T State University, Fayetteville State University, the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, Elizabeth City State University, Winston-Salem State University and Western Carolina University. Dr. Judith P. Pulley, the North Carolina system’s vice president for planning, says that the board of governors and state Legislature tied their acceptance of the project to combining enrollment plans with retention efforts.North Carolina system officials “see retention as a critical part of enrollment,” Pulley says. Each of the seven schools will develop its own retention plans and goals. Pulley says state planners outlined the enrollment goals for the campuses so that they can design and implement retention programs according to their needs. “It’s just my impression that the words enrollment and retention should follow one another if you’re talking about either one of them,” Pulley says.Here at the University of Texas at Austin, officials first started offering the Gateway retention program in 1994 to first-generation college students with low entrance exam scores and to other students facing disadvantages. This year, roughly $500,000 will be spent on Gateway, which has a 50- faculty teaching staff . With Texas’ public colleges operating under the strictures of the Hopwood court decision, which banned affirmative action, Gateway is open to students of all races and ethnicities. But minority students have made up about 75 percent of those enrolled in the program since it was founded, Arellano says. Participants last fall earned an average grade-point average of 3.2, outperforming the overall freshman average of 2.8.During the 1997-98 academic school year, the university discharged 4.4 percent of its freshmen class. But not one Gateway student was forced to leave for academic reasons. In fact, all remained in school.
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