Baylor University

Keeping Them at Baylor

Oct. 5, 2005

By Randy Fiedler


BaylorNews: Let's look at the big picture first. How does Baylor compare with peer institutions when it comes to student retention?

Diana Ramey: Baylor is considered a selective institution according to ACT's classification. Our first-year retention rate of 83 percent is slightly above the average of comparable institutions, which is 80 percent. In addition, our six-year graduation rate of 70 percent is higher than the average of 68 percent for comparable schools. To move into the highly selective areas as planned in Vision 2012, we need to improve our first-year retention rate to 93 percent and our six-year graduation rate to 80 percent. And we believe these goals can be achieved.

Is there an immediate goal for this school year?

Yes. Retention experts indicate that most institutions who engage in a systematic and comprehensive retention effort should expect to improve annual retention rates by 2-5 percentage points. After a review of Baylor's potential enrollment picture, we set a one-year goal to retain 85 percent of the freshmen who enter this fall, which is an increase of 2 percentage points over last year.

Why should all Baylor faculty and staff care about student retention?

Improving the quality of student life and learning is a continuing and important priority for all colleges and universities. No institution can stand still, no matter how good things are at the moment. Always uppermost in our minds must be the question: "Are our policies, procedures, and programs centered on student life and learning?" After all, student learning is the reason for our existence and the basis for our mission -- educating men and women to go out into the world prepared to lead and serve.

If we believe in that mission, then we naturally care about seeing that our students receive an excellent education and experience personal growth with the fewest possible barriers. In short, we must provide an academic culture that engages students in the learning process. Retention is an outcome of a high-quality educational experience.

While some attrition can always be expected, attrition is costly--both in time and money. As good stewards of both, we must continue to care as individuals about personally impacting students' lives and about having the resources we need to provide the educational experiences we value and the faculty and staff to support those experiences. It is more cost effective to retain current students than it is to recruit new ones.

So if we make what's here attractive enough, students are naturally going to stay?

Right. If we want our students prepared in the best way we can prepare them, then we must give them the tools and support they need to thrive in an academically rigorous environment. If students are engaged in the learning process and involved in student life, they're going to stay because the environment is so conducive to helping them achieve success.

What are the biggest obstacles that might prevent students from achieving that success here?

We conducted a student satisfaction survey and held focus groups last spring to identify some challenges to student success. The No. 1 challenge students said they face on a regular basis is course availability. This is due in part to a number of things. First, Baylor generally has a 9 a.m.-2 p.m. class day, as 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. classes are not popular. Second, fewer classes are offered on Fridays, which creates a scheduling problem for Monday through Thursday classes. Next, there are increasing restrictions placed on classes which require permits, and finally, the advising systems across the campus are complex and not uniformly valued.

What are the reasons students most often give for leaving a university?

At Baylor, medical concerns are the most frequently given reason for withdrawing from Baylor. Next in line are personal reasons. Students also frequently indicate that they are leaving because their career objectives have changed or because of inadequate finances.

In many cases, the lack of a sense of belonging is behind the personal reasons given for leaving. That's why student engagement is such a big issue, because that's one of the keys to getting students to stay -- making sure they get plugged in.

Since it's so important that students plug in as soon as they get to campus, what is Baylor doing to try to get students more involved?

Well, summer orientation and Welcome Week have been around for quite some time now, and both of those programs focus on getting students engaged in campus life. For the last few years, the Chapel Fridays program has carried the Welcome Week experience into the first six weeks of school. One of the things the task force is looking at now is how we can improve upon all of those programs. And we've already made a few changes this fall. For example, we did a few things at orientation to help students know what's expected of them as Baylor students, both academically and socially, and we had faculty members speak to students at Welcome Week to reinforce that information. Then, during Chapel Fridays the first six weeks of this semester, the curriculum was redesigned to provide more of a mini "freshman year experience." We hope we are doing things in those first encounters with students that will make an impact on them.

When we see that a student isn't getting plugged into campus life, or is struggling with classes, are there things we can do to intervene before they possibly decide that Baylor's not for them and then leave?

Yes. Embrace the concept of early intervention -- stepping in once a problem is detected to solve the problem so the student has no reason to leave. About 19% of the fall 2003 freshmen who responded to a survey indicated that they had thoughts about withdrawing within their first six weeks at Baylor. Campus life can be overwhelming in the early months particularly -- not knowing where to turn or how to feel a part of things. The Office of Student Life makes so many activities available -- there really is something for everyone -- but sometimes students just need to be encouraged by one of us to get involved in an activity on campus. Sometimes they just need to know that a professor or a staff member cares about them and has a personal interest in them.

Through the student referral system link on Blackboard, Class Roll, and Web for Faculty, faculty can refer students to the Baylor Success Center. For example, if a professor thinks a student has missed too many classes or is not doing well on exams he or she will likely be the first to make a contact -- but if it appears that some additional support is needed, then we hope the faculty member will refer the student to the Success Center. An academic services coordinator manages the referral system by talking with students, assessing needs and making recommendations -- such as career counseling or tutoring or mentoring -- and by giving feedback to the professors.

But others around campus can make referrals as well. Staff members who employ students in their offices have great opportunities to know when something isn't going well -- and more often then not, they do everything in their power to meet the needs of their own student workers. But we want everyone to know that a phone call to the Success Center or an email is another way that they can help to make a difference in a student's life.

Students need to know as early as possible how they are doing in class. One of the biggest problems freshmen have is adjusting to the amount of time they need to study for college classes. Almost 62 percent of the fall 2003 freshmen survey respondents indicated that they spent less than five hours a week studying in high school. The earlier students can sample a professor's tests or get feedback, the quicker the students will get the message that this is not high school! That is why deficiency reports are so important to students, especially freshmen. It can be just the kind of wake-up call a student needs to get on track quickly and turn things around.

With this new emphasis on early intervention, we anticipate we're going to get a lot more referrals and deficiency reports, and that's good, because the earlier we can get them connected to support or help, the better the chances are they're going to do well and finish the semester.

How important is it that faculty and staff participate in early intervention?

Extremely important. Getting off to a good start early is the key to success. It's the Baylor family who can make the difference. We've all heard stories about a particular professor or employee who made someone truly feel part of Baylor or who helped someone find the right path to follow. Faculty and staff often help is in the little things they do -- taking a minute to listen to a student or troubleshoot a problem, making a quick phone call, anticipating a question that needs to be answered but is likely not to be asked, or simply saying a warm "hello."

What about tutoring? Does Baylor provide that to help students do better when they're having trouble with a subject?

Yes, tutors are available for a number of academic departments -- some of the tutors charge a fee, but some do not. There's a listing of these departments on the Success Center website. And tutoring resources are also available at www.smarthinking.com. It's an online tutoring service, which Baylor makes available to students at no cost. Students can log on 24/7 in their own rooms or wherever they may be and have access to tutoring in a number of courses we offer, so it's very helpful for students. We are planning to greatly enhance the availability of tutoring on campus in the near future.

So will we see any changes to tutoring services this fall?

Our goal is to provide tutoring at no cost to the students in key courses -- and in a centralized location on campus this fall. Once our plans are finished, the academic services coordinator will manage the tutoring program in Moody Library which should make it easy for students to participate.

Talk a little bit about the special task force that's been created to tackle the retention issue.

The task force was created last spring to develop and implement a plan for improving student life and learning. Members and teams were carefully chosen so that every school and college and each service area was represented. I serve as chair, and we have 30 people on the core team and another 30 or so people serving on action planning teams. The primary goal of the task force is to review issues such as retention, graduation rates, student engagement and student life and learning--and as a group collectively determine the directions we need to go to meet the goals of Baylor 2012.

We spent a lot of time last spring looking at historical trends and retention data, and getting our arms around our situation at Baylor. The task force also looked at results of a student survey and input from focus groups to get a better idea of perceptions and obstacles. We found that faculty earned high marks for their caring attitudes, accessibility, and concern for student welfare -- and staff were noted as being caring and helpful. There was also evidence of pride in the quality of instruction and academic programs. However, we also found that there were some problems we needed to address.

Out of that work last spring, we came up with six primary areas of focus, which include quality service, academic culture, early intervention, learning communities, common experiences, and course availability. And we've developed action plans for each area that we're working on this year.

Are there any new techniques or tools recommended by the task force that we're using now?

The task force decided to do a number of things this year, including:

  • promoting the coordination, communication and focus of campus-wide academic advising;
  • enhancing the student referral system used by faculty, making it easier to use and to track;
  • advertising smarthinking.com, an online tutoring service provided free to Baylor students;
  • providing a centralized location for tutoring in targeted courses at no cost to the student;
  • expanding the class time offerings to improve classroom use;
  • emphasizing academic expectations in summer orientation;
  • including faculty in the Welcome Week convocation to set the tone for transitioning from high school to college;
  • piloting learning communities in two residence halls through linked courses and/or experiences;
  • structuring the Chapel Friday curriculum around six themes for success, such as time management; and
  • enhancing the quality of services we provide to students.
  • Campus-wide collaboration is essential in our efforts to help students stay at Baylor and to graduate. We welcome suggestions and ideas!

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