Student Retention through Student Success
By Hernan Bucheli and Richard Rossi
At a time when state and federal budget cuts are prevalent, many private and public institutions are finding it challenging to continue to guarantee access to higher education—especially for low-income students. But access is only half the issue: Retaining students—especially first-generation, low-income and historically underserved students—is the other half. And in many ways, it is the more important half. It is pointless to spend significant amounts of money to recruit students and then to educate them only for a semester—until they walk out the door, never to return. That is one reason that Notre Dame de Namur University (NDNU) has stepped up its retention efforts. NDNU is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), meaning that more than 25 percent of its undergraduate population is Hispanic. The university is the only private four-year not-for-profit HSI in northern California. More than 85 percent of its undergraduate students receive financial aid. Those from households with low income (less than $40,000 annually) constitute approximately 20 percent of the undergraduate population. Sixty percent of freshmen in fall 2010 were first-generation college students. Notre Dame de Namur University was founded to provide education to underserved populations; at the time that was women, but now, it’s Hispanic, first-generation and low-income students.
In fall 2011, NDNU received a $2.9 million Hispanic-Serving Institution Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) grant and a $3.2 million Developing HSI grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Both grants will fund support services designed to meet the needs of Hispanic, low-income students. Specifically, they will support NDNU’s efforts to provide the following services to boost student success and retention:
- the Gen 1 program;
- peer mentoring;
- supplemental instruction;
- enhanced tutorial services; an early warning system; and
- student success coaching.
Even before receiving the grants, NDNU had in place a successful program focused on helping first-generation students remain in school. The program was based on three principles: personal mentoring; improvement of study skills; and an early warning system.
NDNU established its “Gen 1” program in fall 2010 to provide first-generation students with the foundation for success in college. The program was made possible by a $100,000 CIC/Walmart College Success Award. First-generation students who participate in the program enroll in a learning strategies class; attend seminars about college, financial aid, careers and other pertinent topics; and work with a peer mentor. Upon completion of the program, students are eligible for a $1,500 scholarship toward the cost of their sophomore year.
The Gen 1 program includes a study skills class to help students develop their academic skills. Additional programs help them develop life skills such as time management and personal financial management. Students who learn to successfully manage non-academic aspects of life are more likely to persist and graduate.
The peer mentors proved to be really important. These students don’t necessarily have someone to turn to show them the ropes of being a college student, because their parents didn’t complete college. The mentors, who are usually first-generation upperclassmen, fill the role of advisor, confidante, friend and guide.
At NDNU, most supplementary education and student support is coordinated through the Academic Success Center (ASC), which administers the PASS program (for students with documented disabilities) and provides tutorial services. ASC also is in charge of an early warning system: four to five weeks into each semester, ASC staff ask all instructors to provide the names of students whose attendance is poor, whose scores on tests and quizzes are low, and/or who have failed to turn in assignments. ASC then contacts the students and works with them to create and implement an academic success plan. We don’t want to let these students fall through the cracks because they are struggling. By identifying academic problems early in the semester, we can provide the support our students need to succeed in their classes and continue their education.
Data prove the success of the Gen 1 program: The fall 2010 Gen 1 cohort had a 78 percent first to fourth semester retention rate, compared to 66 percent for the non–Gen 1 group and 64 percent for first-generation students who opted out of the program. NDNU is projecting even higher retention rates for the fall 2011 freshman class and beyond.
Grant funding is enabling NDNU to allocate resources for additional outreach in support of students at risk of dropping out. A director of retention and student success and a student success coaching program constitute two such efforts. The director of retention and student success will oversee the success coaching initiative at NDNU and is also charged with strategic retention planning and retention services for the institution.
NDNU has partnered with InsideTrack, a provider of student coaching services, to improve student persistence and success. The company provides students with a coach to help them identify academic and career goals, determine the best means to attain them, and develop strategies for overcoming obstacles that may arise.
The student success coaching model is based on the understanding that student success depends on the presence of multiple motivational factors, including proactive experience management, frequent feedback, a sense of purpose, mentoring, and recognition. Student coaching equips students to succeed by providing them with the skills necessary to connect their everyday activities to their long-term goals.
Starting in fall 2012, every freshman will be provided with a success coach. We are confident that the InsideTrack program will provide the same retention success that has been demonstrated at other institutions.
As a result of the support services it offers, NDNU has experienced an increase in retention over the past several years. Since 2008, first- to second-year retention for the freshman cohort has increased 10 percentage points, from 67 percent from fall 2008 to fall 2009 to 77 percent from fall 2010 to fall 2011. The university intends to continue this trend. We’re a small school but we have a big mission — to provide access to higher education for anyone who seeks it, regardless of any hardships they may face. It is our expectation that with the addition of these new support services, we will be able to continue to do just that, by providing a foundation for success from the beginning.
Hernan Bucheli is vice president for enrollment at Notre Dame de Namur University. Richard Rossi is director of communications at Notre Dame de Namur University.