Beating back the dropout rate

Tim Magaw

Sophomore nursing major Kristen Prowant isn’t sure if she’s coming back to Kent State next year.

She’s been trying to get into the nursing program for two years, and she’s tired of waiting. If she doesn’t get into the program, she might transfer to another school.

“I love everything about (Kent State),” she said. “But do I spend thousands of dollars to take LERs that don’t count toward my degree?”

Since President Lester Lefton arrived at Kent State, he’s been concerned about retaining students and bolstering enrollment.

“A large number of students do not persist to graduation,” Lefton said. “Some transfer to other schools. Some put off finishing their education for several years — even decades. Some students just drop out and enter the workforce permanently.”

Lefton said he thinks it’s possible to increase both retention and graduation rates.

According to the Office of Research Planning and Institutional Effectiveness, 71.1 percent of students returned for their sophomore year last fall. This is slightly down by 0.8 percent from the fall of 2004. The graduation rate for full-time students who entered as full-time freshmen in 2000 and graduated after six years is 45.7 percent.

Raising the Standard

Lefton said he doesn’t expect to immediately compete with graduation rates of schools such as the Miami University, which has a graduation rate of 81.1 percent for freshman who entered in 2000. Right now, he said, his goals are “more modest.”

Lefton said he’d be “very excited” if the university was able to boost its retention rate to about 78 percent.

“To an extent, there’s a culture in Ohio that says higher education is not important,” he said. “So why go to school?”

Lefton said Kent State provides as much scholarship and aid as it can, adding the university also facilitates loans. However, Lefton said students should make the investment in higher education now because it will lead to increased wages, and they will earn more on a go-forward basis.

In order to bolster retention rates, Lefton said resources are being focused on the freshman class — especially in regard to university orientation. Next year’s First Year Colloquium will be more special-topic oriented, allowing students more options on what their orientation classes will focus on.

Lefton also said there are going to be more tutoring sessions in various departments around campus to help students in their specific disciplines. There have also been new advising programs, he said, including some adjunct peer advising as well as more direct faculty-student interaction.

Living and Learning

Retention initiatives don’t stop in the advising offices.

“The residence advisers in the dormitories are seeking to provide information to students early and often,” Lefton said.

The retention rate for students living on campus is significantly higher than commuters. According to RPIE, 73.1 percent of first-time freshmen were retained opposed to 63.3 percent of commuters.

Pete Goldsmith, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, said the residence halls are designed for academic success.

“We like to think of them as living learning communities rather than places where students just sleep,” he said.

Residential learning communities are on-campus housing opportunities for students sharing academic interests. Learning communities’ freshman retention rates are higher than the campus-wide average of 71.1 percent except for the 66.7 percent retention rate of the EXCEL learning community. The community is located on the fourth floor of Lake Hall and is geared toward freshman and transfer exploratory majors with less than 25 credit hours. The learning community with the highest retention rate of 96.6 percent is the Science Learning Community located in McSweeney Hall.

For Goldsmith, it’s not about just working to keep students at Kent State: It’s about helping them achieve their goals. He said the university has many strengths that help students stay on campus.

Goldsmith said Kent State has plenty of opportunities and choices for students academically. For example, he said a student might initially be interested in nursing, but he or she might realize there are other health-related majors, such as nutrition or sports medicine.

Goldsmith said Kent State also has an array of services, including advising and counseling.

“For a large place, we’re very friendly,” he said. “We reach out to students to try and help them.”

Along with promoting a midterm initiative to reach students early and using standardized testing to help identify student problems, Goldsmith said the university is trying to also help students better prepare financially so they can graduate within four years.

“It’s just trying to figure out where there are barriers,” he said. “If we can manage those barriers, we can help them achieve their goals.”

But there’s always room for improving parts of the university that might help with retention, Goldsmith said. For example, he said Kent State could work to ensure students know when courses are being offered.

“Because we are so large, we always need to work to communicate with folks so everybody gets the word,” he said.

Financing and Retaining

David Creamer, senior vice president for administration, said retention is an important variable in the perception of the quality of a university.

“The longer you’re enrolled as a student, the larger funding we receive,” Creamer said.

However, not all of the additional funding is given just because of increased retention. Creamer said part of the assumption is that the higher level courses are more expensive to offer, especially because they are usually taught by tenure professors.

Creamer said a significant portion of the university’s budget could be considered for retention efforts, including support for advising, university orientation and other on-campus activities.

“The activities are focused on multiple goals, and retention happens to be one of them,” he said.

Contact administration reporter Tim Magaw at [email protected].