MONTICELLO, AR — Improving retention and graduation rates is a challenge faced by all colleges and universities, particularly those with open admissions policies.
The University of Arkansas at Monticello does not require a minimum ACT score for admission, making it open to all high school graduates regardless of their preparedness. This makes the challenge of increasing retention and graduation rates a daunting task, according to Dr. Jimmie Yeiser, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
To improve both, UAM has recently begun a three-part program to identify at-risk students and risk factors contributing to student failure and to institute programs to assist those students.
The program, which focuses primarily on first-time freshmen and transfer students, includes
E-Mentoring to teach students how to use campus computer resources; The First Four Weeks to capture student interest and engage them in learning; and The First-Year Experience to identify the skills all incoming freshmen need to succeed.
“Retention is vital to the university’s ability to meet its mission,” explains Yeiser. “It is vital in terms of our ability to meet the expectations set forth by the state, to fund the various programs here on campus, and to promote the socio-economic health of southeast Arkansas and beyond.”
Improving retention and graduation rates was at the top of Yeiser’s agenda when he became UAM’s chief academic officer in October 2012. He began by talking to the deans to discover what the institution was doing to attract and retain students. “It was an educational exercise for me,” he says. “What I was able to gather from that experience was that we had a lot of efforts in both of those areas that were meeting with success, but there was no general coordination of these efforts at the campus level. Everybody was doing their own thing. It was an opportunity to share the successes and failures and get a feel for what we needed to be doing as an institution.”
One of the biggest obstacles to retention, Yeiser discovered, was underprepared students who were not using the campus computer resources available to them. “We assume that today’s students are all computer savvy because they come to campus with a smart phone, and we think because they can surf the web that they know how to use our computer resources. But that is not true.”
To correct that deficiency, UAM began a program last fall called E-Mentoring, which teaches incoming freshmen and transfer students how to do simple things, such as how to log on to the campus computer system and how to access their university e-mail accounts. The program is open to anyone but is required for students taking online courses.
UAM also hosts a technology fair each semester, providing hands-on instruction in Blackboard, the university’s online instruction interface, as well as how to use electronic library resources, and more.
The second component to improving retention and graduation is a program called The First Four Weeks. “From the literature we know that the first four weeks of a semester is a very critical time for engaging students and contributes greatly to a student’s success or failure,” says Yeiser. “What we’re trying to do is target the things that we can do during the first four weeks to keep students in school.”
Some of the ideas are simple, says Yeiser. “A lot of it is one-on-one encouragement,” he explains. “Show that you care, raise their expectations, help students understand where they stand and promote active, engaged learning. We are asking ourselves what we can do during the first four weeks to get that student to want to attend, to get that student mentally engaged. How can we show him or her that we do care? What support resources are available to help that student succeed? That’s what the First Four Weeks Initiative is about.”
According to Yeiser, students at the greatest risk of leaving school in the first four weeks are those with low ACT scores and low high school GPAs. He stresses the importance of good academic advising for these students and getting them placed in classes where they have a chance to succeed.
Yeiser wants to study each academic major over a four-to-six year period to determine whether there is a course in each major that is an indicator of probable graduation. “Let’s take business, for example,” he says. “Let’s assume you take Accounting I and make a D. What is the likelihood that you’re going to graduate with an accounting degree? I can tell you it’s not very good. So at that point, if we know that course is an indicator for success or failure, we should be able to advise that student that it really doesn’t look promising for them in accounting and ask if they have considered something else?”
The third component to improving retention and graduation is The First-Year Experience, which is designed to identify the necessary skills for incoming freshmen to be successful. Yeiser and members of the UAM faculty compiled a list of courses all freshmen are likely to take with plans to build into those courses the skills and knowledge to stay in college and succeed. “When E-Mentoring, the First Four Weeks and the First-Year Experience are considered collectively as a retention program, then the First Four Weeks establishes the faculty-student relationships needed to keep students in class long enough for E-Mentoring and the First-Year Experience to provide the fundamental skill sets needed for success,” Yeiser says.
The program has a social component as well. Jay Hughes, vice chancellor for student affairs, and his staff are meeting with social organizations to survey students about what they want in the way of social experiences. “We’re taking both a curricular and non-curricular approach,” says Yeiser.
One of the misconceptions concerning retention and graduation is that only weak students are at risk. Yeiser says UAM loses nearly half of its freshmen institutional scholarship recipients annually because of low grades. “Maybe high school was easy for them and they didn’t develop the study and organizational skills to succeed in a more rigorous academic environment,” he explains. “They had enough natural ability to get through high school but now they’re being challenged at a different level and don’t know how to respond. Therefore, UAM’s retention efforts will also focus on helping institutional scholarship recipients succeed.”
Yeiser believes that improved retention and graduation rates are essential to the continued health of the university. “I am convinced this is very important to our future and it is necessary,” he says. “You’ve heard it said that recruiting is everybody’s job. Well, retention is everybody’s job, too.”
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