College ramps up first-year retention efforts


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Margo Warden

For many colleges, especially public ones, retention rates from first to second year have long been problematic, and JSC is no exception.

While the college’s current rate of about 66 percent marks a five-point improvement during the past several years, the college is investing new resources to raise that figure higher.
Perhaps the most prominent of these efforts is a program called MAP-Works, in which MAP stands for “Making Achievement Possible.”

Sara Kinerson, director of advising, is part of the effort to increase student retention.

According to Kinerson, the college sees MAP-Works as more of a “success tool” than a “retention tool.”
“MAP-Works is a program that is in place to measure the students’ experience and try to address needs as they arise,” Kinerson said. “One of the ways you measure success is by their return to the college.”
Kinerson said that the idea to apply MAP-Works to JSC’s admissions process was brought in by JSC’s new president, Dr. Elaine Collins.

According to Margo Warden, director of first-year experience, MAP-Works takes various pieces of data on each new student and puts them all together to form a “personalized report about how to meet their expectations, how to be more successful in college, and what campus resources are available to help.”
“One of the areas that feeds into MAP-Works is admissions data,” Kinerson said. “So this is information that the students supplied us with when they applied to college, and that includes high school grades, transcripts, any other number of pieces of information that admissions and the company believes is important… We can identify the specifics, and then we can load that into MAP-Works before the students even arrive.”

MAP-Works hasn’t been put into place yet, but it will eventually become part of the admissions process and the first-year experience.

According to Kinerson, their efforts this year are focusing on a survey portion of MAP-Works, which consists of a survey given to freshmen at week three and week eight or nine of their first year.
“They’re answering questions about how their experience here has been so far, how they are feeling; are they making friends and fitting in? Are they worried about finances or academics?” Kinerson said. “It has them assess all aspects of their life here.”

Another part of the retention puzzle, especially for first-year students is advising. The college has created a new advising model deploying two full-time staff advisors, who will advise all new students and transfer students for their first year, after which the students will be transferred to faculty advisors.

These advisors will be “managing the MAP-Works data,” Kinerson said. “Each student has a dashboard, so the advisor can see if there’s any area that needs to be addressed. So if the student reports concern about finances, the advisor can then help connect that student with the appropriate resource to help address that issue.”

Kinerson explained that the existence of one-time funding, specifically for retention efforts, was what prompted the decision to hire the two new advisors.

According to VSC’s Finance and Facilities Committee’s meeting report from May 13, $274,895 was taken out of a fund of $493,413 (money that was reserved from 2013-2014) to fund this new advising system. It was one among three retention efforts to receive a portion of this money.

“The National Advising Association outlines various models of advising,” Kinerson said. “This model of advising that we’ve adopted is one that has been shown to work very well for students, where in their freshman year they’re fully supported in ways that go beyond the traditional academic advisor role.”
These additional advisor roles include taking the time to walk students through the use of many college programs and resources.

“The idea is that these advisors will fully orient and prepare freshmen for their remaining three years here, so that when they are transitioning to a faculty advisor, they are fully aware of college policies and procedures, of all of the web tools available to them, the program evaluation tool, how they register online for classes, all of those other pieces of information.”

Kinerson pointed out that nobody in the faculty had the kind of time it takes to talk with all of their advisees about things unrelated to their majors.

“The amount of time it takes to have these conversations with freshmen… it’s a lot of time,” Kinerson said. “It’s just not happening with our previous model of advising.”
According to Kinerson, all of this will hopefully lead to their relationship with their faculty advisors being focused on internship and career opportunities, as well as graduate school options, as opposed to things that do not relate to their major.

“This model of advising, we believe, will lead to freshmen being better educated about what they need to do as students, and how to graduate in their four-year timeline, and the resources available to them,” Kinerson said.

The new advisors have already been hard at work with this year’s freshman class.
“They have seen a lot of students,” Kinerson said. “It has been a good couple of weeks, and they’re certainly connecting with students.”

Faculty reaction to the new advising model is mixed with attitudes ranging from approval to objection.
Paul Silver, professor and chair of the Humanities department, has doubts regarding the new system.
“I’d be happier about the new system if I knew what the new advisors were telling the new students,” Silver said. “It seems that the earlier a relationship between advisor and advisee is established, the better.”

Chair and Professor of Mathematics Julie Theoret, on the other hand, has no concerns about the new system, stating that a lot of faculty members are burdened with too many advisees.

“I think this was, in part, to make sure first-year students are really getting that one-on-one interaction… as well as helping some of our faculty that are really overburdened with advising as well,” she said. “Because, with the faculty that have really heavy advising loads, a big chunk of that is the first-year students… I appreciate Johnson trying to be more supportive of the faculty and the students.”

Kinerson said that one of their goals is to keep faculty connected with students in their department.
“We very much want students to connect with faculty in their first year, that is one of their supports and resources on campus, and we don’t want to create a barrier for that,” Kinerson said. “Part of the advisor’s responsibility is to make sure that they work with the faculty to make sure that everyone is getting to know each other and connecting, even if they’re not formally listed as advisor for the first year.”

Another piece of the first-year retention puzzle includes an array of first-year experiences, including the First-Year seminars and Creative Audience, both of which are requirements in the General Education program.

This year, JSC has started implementing mandatory meetings for the Creative Audience class, primarily because it has had no official gatherings to begin with.

“Creative Audience is a course without a single classroom or meeting time,” Warden said. “We created the Creative Audience orientation session so that students could begin this CA like all of their other classes – with a welcome and introduction to the class; with an opportunity to review the syllabus understand the expectations; and with an opportunity for Q and A before the first CA event. It truly was designed to provide students the what, why, and how of Creative Audience.”

These meetings were held by pairs of faculty and staff members, Warden said. Each meeting included the use of a Powerpoint that detailed what Creative Audience events are being held this semester, how to get credit for attending an event, how to utilize tools such as Moodle to monitor progress, as well as etiquette for attending these events.

These mandatory meetings, coupled with the new retention efforts, are all part of what the college hopes will hopefully serve keep first-to-second-year retention rates improving.