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 Featured Story

Rethinking Retention

The impact of the Success Challenge initiative on student retention levels

by Bill Koch, Editor, Higher Education Digest

What keeps you going back to your favorite retail stores? Most likely, they have the products you want at prices you can afford. But beyond that simple metric, how do they keep you as a customer?

They may offer incentives such as coupons, advertised sales or, even better, great customer service. Over time, regular employees may recognize you as a regular customer and give you personalized attention. You’ll also become so familiar with the stores that you can find obscure items quickly.

In much the same way, colleges and universities across the country have recently had to expand and are trying to improve their retention efforts. While the incentives they offer are different than drugstores that sell products like aspirin or frozen buffalo wings, there are some similarities. At the core, it all comes down to relationships.

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“After World War II, the GI Bill changed everything,” says Caroline B. Miller, associate vice president for enrollment management in Student Affairs and Services at the University of Cincinnati. “Suddenly, college was affordable and attainable for students from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

In the decades after World War II, more students worked to pay the rest of their way through college. Miller says, “We saw the beginning of a large number of students working while attending school, with the added stress and time constraints.” She adds, “The phenomenon of one semester in school, one semester off working to pay for school, also started at this time.”

Even more interesting were the families these students came from. “You now had people entering college who were first generation collegians. Their parents hadn’t gone to college,” Miller says, “and thus couldn’t understand firsthand the pressures and frustrations of completing a four-year degree.”

With all these new factors in play at colleges across the country, retention grew to be a bigger issue at the highest levels of administration. In the past 15 years, most colleges have added retention programs to their strategic planning efforts.

Why worry about retention?

“Retention is a measure of satisfaction,” Miller says. “Any retail store uses the same measure. Do customers come back to your store? Why or why not?”

For higher profile colleges, such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale, retention is a matter of prestige. While their admissions standards are stringent enough to nearly guarantee any student who gets in will work hard stay there, even the big names must focus on retention. “If students get into their schools but can’t stay afloat academically,” Miller says, “then they are either not screening well enough or not providing services to counsel able-but-frustrated students.”

Beyond the ethereal notion of prestige, more practical matters have forced colleges to focus on retention. “At the most basic level, there’s the financial bottom line,” Miller says. “Colleges want to have students pay to go to their school for four years.”

Other issues that have forced retention to the foreground are planning for staff and facilities. “You have to hire staff with some sort of idea of your future student population,” Miller says. “You’d like to assume that everyone will stay at your school — and then staff accordingly. The same goes for classrooms, housing, library facilities and recreation facilities.”

Retention takes on an added layer of urgency for public institutions, like the University of Cincinnati. “At a public institution,” Miller says, “you are accountable to the taxpayers who help fund your school’s services.” This means that public university administrators must demonstrate to their elected officials that they are admitting and retaining the right students.

Overcoming the challenge

With a complex mix of issues holding down retention levels, the state of Ohio knew a more emphatic and focused solution was necessary. In 2000, Ohio started the Success Challenge. They took resources (i.e., money and people) out of state-funded college budgets and redirected them to retention strategies.

“They didn’t say exactly how each college should improve its retention efforts,” Miller says, “but they did make it clear — by reallocating resources — that it should be a key part of our strategic plans.”

In the last five years, the University of Cincinnati has developed a two-pronged approach to the retention issue. The first focuses on academic support solutions. The second focuses on student resource initiatives.

“Our broadest goal with the academic support solutions,” Miller says, “was to create a ‘learning community.’ We wanted to ensure that students — especially freshmen — didn’t feel alone in an unfamiliar academic setting.”

Putting programs in place

Miller says, “One of our most successful programs — a learning community for freshmen students — was initially developed for nursing students.”

Since a typical nursing student takes five base-level courses like chemistry, English and a social science in the first quarter, the University of Cincinnati’s nursing program now places as many students as possible in the same classes for each course.

“It’s easy for a freshman to get lost in a big university,” Miller says. “The idea of a learning community is not only to bolster the students’ academic progress, but also give them an easier way to bond with other students. The common experience of sharing your first college classes makes for lasting relationships.”

Another successful retention program, the “co-op” program, focuses on academics. It started with “co-op calculus” for engineering students. Now, students are automatically registered for an additional hour beyond their regular classes every week in a classroom setting with a junior or senior engineering student.

“It’s much better than just offering an advisor,” Miller notes. “By requiring students to spend this additional hour, they get solid advice and problem-solving skills from someone who has been there.”

Students don’t have to undertake a special initiative — or feel singled out — if they need extra help with this often challenging first-year class. “Besides,” Miller notes, “sometimes an older student may seem more approachable than a professor if you have a serious problem-solving issue.”

Additional student services

As part of its Success Challenge efforts, the University of Cincinnati also provides additional student services such as their new Center for Exploratory Studies.

“Surveys have shown that only 25 percent of freshman students really know exactly what they want to do with their lives — and then stick to it,” Miller says. “This is a big area for losing students.”

Students who decide to make a 180-degree career change midway through college may not realize how strong the program at their current university is. They often immediately look elsewhere, thinking they won’t find their specialty at their current school.

At the Center for Exploratory Studies, students can get help in finding out what it is they want to do — and what they would be good at because the center is staffed with special advisors who focus on career counseling.

Another retention program at the University of Cincinnati is the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. This mentoring program has been particularly beneficial for the diverse student population. “The Big Brothers/Big Sisters program addresses the additional complications minority students face, both academically and socially,” Miller says. “It helps them find academic resources and gives them opportunities to bond with other students.”

The University of Cincinnati also targets Orientation and the Welcome Week for freshman as a time to boost retention. “It’s not something we can track directly, but we feel it contributes to our success.”

During orientation, the special academic and student support services are communicated directly to students — and their parents — so that everyone is aware of the additional support structures available to all students. “This is the time to let students know that we’re aware of how difficult it can be to adjust to college life,” Miller says. “We want them to know there are resources on campus to help them adjust both academically and socially.”

Meeting students’ needs

The range of retention programs offered at the University of Cincinnati demonstrates that no two students are alike. By offering a variety of programs targeted at what drives a lack of retention, the University of Cincinnati has tried to address the needs of all students.

“In our experience,” Miller notes, “students who come into college with a lower level of academic preparation are more in need of the educational enhancement programs such as co-op classes.” For these students, extra time with an approachable and experienced older student helps them catch up to their peers more quickly.

“In contrast,” Miller says, “students with a higher level of academic preparedness are more impacted by the social integration programs like the learning communities.” The University of Cincinnati has found that these students have little risk for academic failure but are dealing with expectations of college life that don’t necessarily meet up with reality.

Financial aid for students

Beyond academic and social issues, another big factor in retention is money. As the cost of a four-year college degree continues to climb, many students simply can’t afford to stay in school. Others who try to work one semester, then rejoin school during a later semester, often find the transitions too difficult and the rewards not as apparent. They simply drop out of school and keep working.

Not surprisingly, there are no easy answers to financial need. “We try to meet financial needs in a number of ways,” Miller says. “We provide grants for students who have demonstrated academic ability and potential for continued achievement. We get involved in fundraising efforts for future grants.”

Miller’s team also provides “gap aid” for students who are considering taking a semester off to work. Most often, these students have maxed out their financial aid and have a small “gap” to close between what they can pay and their current expenses.

“We provide ‘gap aid’ on a case-by-case basis for students in good academic standing and who are making good progress,” Miller says. “It’s a way to ensure these students stay in school and don’t fall through the cracks when they are forced to take a semester off.”

Giving students a great start

Abstract concepts like relationships, bonding and community are wonderful, but the success of a retention program boils down to cold, hard numbers. The variety of retention programs at the University of Cincinnati are a success by any measure. During the 1998-1999 school year, its retention rate was 68 percent. During the 2003-2004 school year, its retention rate was 78 percent.

The University of Cincinnati has used the Success Challenge as a springboard to create programs that address the academic, social and career-oriented needs of a variety of students. By considering all the reasons that students from very different backgrounds might choose to leave their school, the university has created programs that meet the needs of different students at different times. Most importantly, their solutions are helping students adjust to college life right from the beginning, This ensures students start — and finish — their degrees at the same school. It is the now the responsibility of each college or university to build and maintain the relationships that will help these students achieve their full academic potential.


Caroline Miller began her tenure as Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at the University of Cincinnati in July 2004. During her first year, she has teamed with other to develop a strategic enrollment plan that is working in concert with UC|21 — UC's Academic Master Plan. Prior to UC, Dr. Miller worked at The College of New Jersey and UNC-Asheville, two campuses known for extraordinary accomplishments in enhancing student retention.

Caroline B. Miller
Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management
Student Affairs and Services
University of Cincinnati
350 University Pavilion
PO Box 210159
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0159
Tel: 513-556-6004
Fax: 513-556-4178
Email: millec8@ucmail.uc.edu


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