College seeks to solve retention riddle


Gunter Kleist

Margo Warden

Johnson State College’s administration, staff, and faculty are working to raise the current retention rate of 63 percent between first and second-year students, which is below the average among the state colleges.

The current retention rate, although low, is not the lowest that Johnson State’s has been. “There was a time while I was here, so it wasn’t very many years ago, when the first to second-year retention rate of true first-time freshman was in the high fifties, which is quite low,” said academic dean Dan Regan. “The efforts of faculty and staff and students of subsequent years had built that rate up to a high of 66 percent, which I think was in the fall of 2011.”

That 66 percent seems to be where Johnson State’s retention rate has plateaued, and it has actually backslid slightly from that percentage.

The financial implications of the retention rate for students is that those who leave are doing so because they have incurred nothing but debt in their first year.

For the college there is a financial implication as well, because a class, as it moves from its sophomore to junior year, has diminished in size. This is a huge cost to the college with the percentage left dropping even further between junior year and graduation.

By graduation, only about 50 percent of the original class is remaining, which entails a significant decline in revenue as the college will no longer be collecting tuition, in subsequent years, from those students who left. Johnson State College depends on tuition revenues in order to run.

JSC’s administration had an external consultant come in to look at retention-related efforts. His observations were that the economic downturn probably affected the college’s ability to continue improving the first to second-year retention rate.
The economic downturn has affected students’ and parents’ ability to pay for college, but Regan said there are many more reasons for attrition which are beyond a college’s control.

“If our student body came from extremely wealthy backgrounds, those factors wouldn’t be so much in play,” he said.

There are also elements within the college itself that Regan says the college should focus on, such as good advising. Surveys administered to students have shown a satisfaction with advisors, but they also reflect that those same students only met with their advisors once in a semester. The administration would like to encourage more regular meetings, because engagement and connection are two factors that Regan says shape retention.

In recent years, the college has been working to heighten engagement and connections that students make. A few programs that have been implemented in this regard are the Transition Program, TRiO, academic coaching, and academic support through the student support services, as well as the Common Reading Initiative, Creative Audience, lobby talks, orientation in the summer, re-orientation in the winter, and peer mentoring through the office of First-Year Experience.

Strategies for retention, according to Director of First-Year Experience Margo Warden, depend on five conditions: expectation, advice, support, involvement, and learning. “What’s going on when we set up all these programmings is that we know that what happens in the classroom is paramount to students’ success and to students making the very important decision to return.The five conditions are very much a part of our mission statement, and they guide our work making adjustments as we move forward.”
The Transition Program provides those five conditions for at-risk first-year students in their first two semesters. “What we try to do is to build a relationship with those students,” said Clyde Stats, assistant director of academic support services. “We are their academic advisors, and we take them on a pre-orientation activity the day before the regular college orientation where they get to know us as actual people not just as the people who sit behind the desk.”

Students in the transition program participate in team building activities while on the trip, and throughout the semester, they’ll meet with their advisors regularly. Advisors of transition students also reach out via text, email, or a phone call if an appointment is missed.

Some of the transition students are eligible for, and are accepted to the TRiO program as well, which offers services to any student on campus who meets the requirements. That program seeks to provide added support to increase persistence and create a one-to-one relationship with members of the academic support staff.

“If you feel like you’re just a number and there aren’t people who care about you, it’s much harder to succeed. If you feel like you have a relationship with someone who works here at Johnson, and you feel like they care and are concerned, you have a much greater chance of persistence and success,” says Stats.

Warden reiterated Stats’ sentiment about humanizing the statistics, because those who decide to leave or continue at Johnson State are students not numbers.

“Let’s first look at the students who left,” she said. “Take that 37 percent, and let’s say that’s 98 students. So, now it’s not a statistic but a person. Who are those 98 people? What major were they in? Who was their advisor? Did they access academic coaching or support through residence life, or academic support services? You have to understand who these students were and why they left. These are students who came in with hope in their life and are gone a year later. They’re not a number, and that’s what guides my work. Not the numbers, but the people.”

While the college learns from those who leave, it also has to learn from those students who choose to stay. It has to look at what is engaging these students, and how it could improve.

One thing that the office of First-Year Experience does in this regard is 20 Questions in which it chooses 100 first-year students at random and asks them to rate their experience at Johnson State through a series of questions. That information motivates the office of First-Year Experience’s actions and future improvements in student engagement and support as well.

Warden says that they must be less passive and more aggressive in their approach to retention and student support. “Students care about an institution if they feel the institution cares about them, and caring can come in many ways. A challenge must be balanced by support. A quote by Vincent Tinto, who is someone we turned to, when we first got our Title III grant and were able to establish this office is ‘Access without support is not opportunity.’ What is that support? It’s orientation, Creative Audience, Common Book, first-year seminar, advisement, and orientation reboot which is only in its second year.”