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Schools eyeing rate of return

Profile image for By Jenna Duncan / Staff Writer
By Jenna Duncan / Staff Writer

Retention rates up at local universities, with further work ahead

Retention rates are on the rise at the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University, though both still fall below the 2012 state average for public universities.

Both universities are working to make sure students who start school in the fall stay on campus until they graduate through various efforts in and outside the classroom, with results beginning to show. At UNT, retention rates have risen 1.2 percent from fall 2012, and at TWU, they have increased nearly 2 percent.

Still, overall rates are lower than the 2012 statewide average of 86.5 percent. That year, the percentage of freshmen returning as sophomores was 69 percent at TWU and 75.5 percent at UNT. This fall, 73.1 percent of the 2012 freshman class returned to TWU, and 75.63 percent at UNT.

“Retention is not a new idea — retention is what we do,” said Yolanda Flores Niemann, senior vice provost at UNT. “We don’t succeed if we don’t keep our students and keep them on the path toward achieving their dreams.”

There are a myriad of reasons students aren’t staying at the campus, said Elizabeth With, vice president for student affairs, but most commonly it comes down to money. Decreases in certain areas of federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, have hurt retention, she said.

“I think that we’re going to continue struggling with it — all campuses are — until we know there’s going to be more federal support and financial aid,” she said.

For TWU, there isn’t a targeted issue — just a focus to make sure students stay in school, said Richard Nicholas, vice president for student life. Even if the university were to collect exit data, Nicholas said he doesn’t think it would be accurate because students would feel pressure to give more socially acceptable answers like financial issues and personal problems rather than say that they were struggling in classes or didn’t feel welcome on campus.

“We have concentrated on who is successful here and what current students tell us they need and what our research tells us works,” Nicholas said.

This will culminate in a large way in the upcoming spring semester, he said, when TWU will open the Pioneer Center for Student Excellence, which has the mission of enabling students to stay on campus. On the second floor of the library, the center will provide several student services and hire additional staff to help students.

“There will be tutoring, study abroad, internship offerings — all things that help students stay engaged and increase the level of support,” Nicholas said. “They will be able to find it in a one-stop facility.”

In January, UNT held a retention data workshop to learn from student affairs and academic affairs staff what they know about students and to create goals for what to do, Niemann said. From the workshop, the school created five task forces to explore different ways to engage students.

“I think it’s fair to say when we had that workshop in January, we were in a place where we had the data to inform our strategies,” Niemann said. “We had the tools now to actually look and say, ‘What are the numbers actually telling us?’ and then developing strategies as a result.”

UNT now has an ongoing expansion of learning communities and required academic advising sessions. There are student assistants in classes — students who are retaking a course they made an A in previously to serve as a resource to struggling students.

Similar initiatives are underway at TWU with expanded advising, supplemental instruction in classes — similar to UNT’s student assistants — and increased faculty engagement. The goals were created after research into retention at TWU and the most successful initiatives at other schools across the nation, Nicholas said.

“We start by looking at who arrives and who doesn’t stay with us,” he said. “We’ve done national research on what works at other universities to improve retention, but mostly we’ve made the decisions on what our students need to be successful.”

Officials at both universities are waiting to see the full results of the initiatives, learn what works and what doesn’t on the campuses, and make sure the goals are integrated into the college culture.

“Student success is integral to what we do every day,” With said. “There’s not too much that we do that we don’t think about how it impacts our students and their experience, and making it better.”

“Every unit on campus involved in our strategic retention understands that student success is of prime importance at UNT,” Niemann said.

JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.