Student retention at St. Olaf has fallen in recent years. After rising during the 1990s and early 2000s, the percentage of students returning for their second, third and fourth years has trended downward since 2010. The first-year to second-year retention rate of 90.6% for the entering 2017 cohort is the lowest in 20 years, according to the 2018-19 Retention Committee’s presentation at the Feb. 14 faculty meeting.
Some faculty have expressed frustration that the Retention Committee and President David Anderson ’74 in his February “PDA’s Desk” video called upon them to help raise retention rates when they lack data on why students are leaving in the first place.
“If you don’t know why people are leaving how can you solve it?” Associate Professor of Political Science & Asian Studies Katherine Tegtmeyer Pak said. “Otherwise everybody’s going to project based on their own sense of where we could do better, or their own encounter with a student who wasn’t having the right sort of experience.”
While the Retention Committee does not yet have granular data on why the retention rate is falling, Vice President for Student Life Hassel Morrison talked at the faculty meeting about how the main reason students are leaving is because they are transferring to different institutions. About half of unretained students transfer to another school, Anderson said in his video address.
Associate Professor of English Rebecca Richards emphasized that many students have very legitimate reasons to transfer.
“I will help students try to find their place at St. Olaf if that’s what’s in their best interest, but if that’s not in their best interest, I’m going to help them figure their way,” Richards said. “That’s what we do as teachers.”
While Morrison suggested that transferring is a bigger reason for falling retention than mental health problems or financial difficulties, some students and faculty members think that mental health issues still play an important role.
“As a Junior Counselor last year I lost five students of my 30, and it was all for mental health reasons,” Student Government Association (SGA) President Sarah Freyermuth ’19 said at the faculty meeting.
Associate Professor of Japanese Rika Ito also mentioned during the faculty meeting that many of her advisees have struggled with mental health problems. Tegtmeyer Pak noted that if mental or physical health problems are hurting retention, then the College should perhaps examine the services it provides for these issues.
Dropping retention rates also hurt tuition revenue, Anderson said. Over half of the 2017 cohort who did not return in fall 2018 are “revenue positive,” meaning they pay more in tuition and fees than they receive in financial aid.
The relatively high ability of departing students to pay means their departure lowers net tuition revenue.
“The amount of revenue we lost due to a dropping retention rate over the last two years is roughly equivalent to the amount of money we spend annually on compensation increases for faculty and staff,” Anderson said.
In their presentation at the faculty meeting, Morrison and Director of Advising and Academic Support Kathy Glampe discussed the factors that predict retention and reviewed some possible strategies for increasing retention rates.
Glampe focused on the work of David Kalsbeek, a researcher who writes, “it has long been common knowledge in the retention community that the most significant predictor of a student’s likelihood to graduate is academic success in the first three years.”
Research done at St. Olaf shows similar results – first-semester and first-year academic success at St. Olaf are significant predictors of first-to-second year retention, according to research by Director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness (IR&E) Susan Canon, IR&E Associate Tšooane Molapo and former IR&E Associate Pa Thao.
Their research also reveals that over the last several years the average first-year GPA of unretained students has been roughly 0.75-1 grade point lower than that of retained students. The average first-year GPA of unretained males is even lower.
Kalsbeek argues that improving processes for all students is the most effective way to improve retention. To that end, Kalsbeek suggests using strategies that improve student performance in difficult and required courses, make it easier for students to track their progress towards graduating, optimize registration and improve the academic calendar.
Administration officials are considering several possible changes to achieve the above aims and improve retention rates.
One such potential change relates to registration. College Registrar Ericka Peterson is examining the current registration process, how it impacts students and how the process might be improved. One such improvement may be summer registration.
There may also be an update to the degree audit appearing in the Student Information System, where students would be able to track their progress towards their major rather than just their progress towards fulfilling the General Education and total course requirements.
Glampe named a number of existing programs that might serve as models for how to boost retention and academic achievement.
She pointed to the success of the Supplemental Instruction (SI) program in improving student grades and raising retention. Students who attend SI have a higher retention rate, a higher average GPA and a lower incidence of poor grades and withdrawals.
Glampe also highlighted the new Connect for Success program for first-generation students. Participants meet once a month and are assigned to a member of faculty or staff who serves as a ‘mentor.’
“We do a meeting once a month, so we’ve talked about academic strategies, we’ve introduced students to the Piper Center, we will do something on experiential learning next week, we took a retreat over January,” Glampe said.
Glampe also mentioned the importance of disseminating effective study strategies and discussed a new Week One session meant to help first-year students make the academic transition from high school to college.
The 2017-18 Retention Task Force handed off its work to the 2018-19 Retention Committee, with most of the Task Force joining the Committee. The latter hopes to build upon the former’s research and spend more time gathering input from faculty and students.
“The people on the committee are really passionate about the student experience,” Glampe said. “My main goal is if a student comes here, comes to St. Olaf, chooses St. Olaf, I want to make sure that the student has a good experience.”
Reporting contributed by Avery Ellfeldt (firstname.lastname@example.org)