The pressure on colleges and universities to improve retention rates has never been more intense, as enrollments decline and demographics shift in the prospective student population. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the scope of the problem: in the fall of 2016, only 61 percent of students returned to their starting college or university for a second year. The rates are even lower for low-income, first-generation and minority students.
The reasons for dropping out vary widely, from a lack of academic preparation to the stress of managing school alongside work, family and financial obligations. In addition, many students feel like they don’t fit in and struggle to create a connection with their school. Students shared these sentiments in research conducted by Barnes & Noble College. Just 41 percent of traditional students said that they felt like they belonged on campus—and for non-traditional students, that number dropped to 29 percent. More than 76 percent of non-traditional students also said they did not feel balanced.
These challenges are wide-ranging, and there’s no single cure-all. However, schools are getting creative in their pursuit of solutions to reach and help as many students as possible. Many of these solutions address two key themes: convenience and community.
Many of the students most at risk of dropping out spend a limited amount of time on campus, including commuter students and part-time students. It’s more important than ever to maximize their time at school and provide targeted, easily accessible support services.
Some schools are bringing peer mentors and coaches right into the classroom. “Course assistants” at Nevada State College make an hourly wage to participate in class, modelling good habits, facilitating group discussions and identifying students who need extra help. The program is reaching students who don’t use other mentoring or tutoring services offered by the college.
At Bunker Hill Community College, part-time students are required to take community learning seminars, offered at a variety of times, including at night and on weekends, to accommodate schedules. The topics are tied directly to their majors or life experiences—everything from Becoming a Teacher to Latinas: A Culture of Empowerment. Each seminar has success coaches to help with academic and career planning, and student mentors also are available not only to participate in class, but to help their peers with day-to-day challenges outside of the classroom. Early research shows that the seminars are helping to increase retention and persistence.
Other solutions aim to meet students along each step of their educational journey and help them chart their course, even as things change and new needs arise. Portland State University (PSU) is building a degree planning platform from the ground up in partnership with Barnes & Noble Education’s LoudCloud. The platform will be automated, making it easier for students and advisors to compare different paths by program, credit pace, time to graduation and cost. Wherever students may be, they can find a way forward that makes the most sense for their individual circumstances and lifestyle.
Of course, if a student never feels like part of the campus community, the most strategic and helpful academic measures may not be enough to keep them enrolled and on the path to graduation. Schools are starting to reach out to students in more personal ways to help build more meaningful connections.
Orientation and activities planned for early in the semester play an important role in establishing a student’s sense of belonging on campus. The University of Texas at Austin offers a pre-orientation session online that seeks to help incoming students tackle self-doubt. Messages from current students share how they once worried that they didn’t belong or weren’t smart enough to succeed—then share how they overcame those feelings.
During orientation, programming related to course selection, academic advising and residence life is still vital. Many schools, however, are beginning to open channels of communication between students with discussion groups on topics they find important—and likely will impact their experience—such as mental health, diversity and justice. Schools are also offering a greater variety of programming for groups of students who share common needs, interests and challenges. Southern Utah University (SUU), for example, offers separate orientations for older adults, veterans and international and multicultural students.
As classes begin, SUU also tailors outreach to students who might need more help getting involved in the community. New students take a personal assessment during orientation, and those who self-identify as shy are invited to smaller-group activities that match their hobbies and interests. Peer mentors are also available to go with these students to their first meeting of a new club or organization—just so that they don’t have to face a new crowd on their own.
Barnes & Noble College partners with a number of colleges and universities nationwide to offer VIP shopping events for new students during orientation or the first week of classes. While students can get help with course materials and answers to important questions, they also get a chance to enjoy music, games, refreshments and get to know their new classmates. It’s a time to relax, have fun and just get comfortable in their new environment—one where many will come back to study, grab coffee, get their spirit gear and meet up with friends. These events and other outreach initiatives resonate—70 percent of students who attend a VIP night say that the campus bookstore made their transition into college life easier.
Deciding whether to return to the same college after freshman year can be a difficult choice for some students. Colleges and universities can face this challenge head on by addressing the issues of belonging and convenience, which can help students persist in their undergraduate programs—ultimately improving freshman retention rates.