University Business January 2018 - 68

PROFESSIONAL OPINION

What freshman retention rates
miss when measuring student success
Hitting retention goals means little when students don't succeed
By Brandon Stokes

W

hen the national averages for
freshman retention rates at
public schools sits around
64 percent and private schools hover
around 70 percent, there's clearly room
for improvement in ensuring students
return to campus the following fall.
Of course, students and parents seem
especially clued in to retention rates, as
no one wants to get settled into a dorm
only to leave the school within a year.
But we must also be careful to not be
short-sighted and cater too heavily toward a singular statistic to the detriment
of students and the institution.

Not disheartened
Last semester, Meredith College implemented a new academic-standing policy
that initially put us at a disadvantage
in our goal to reach an 80 percent firstyear retention rate. We came up just
short-79.9 percent returned to campus
this fall-but we were not disheartened
in the least.
Those who did not return were students who previously would have been
readmitted, but instead were suspended
after poor academic performance. Readmitting them would not have done these
students any favors.
Rather than bring them back for
another semester or two of accruing student loans without appreciable academic
success, the more ethical thing was to
identify their struggles earlier, provide

UBmag.me/miss

68 | January 2018

them with additional support, and recognize when the situation was still not
working as planned.

Rather than bring failing
students back for another
semester of student loans
without appreciable
academic success, the more
ethical thing was to identify
their struggles earlier.
It was obvious the status quo should
be changed regarding our academic
standards. In looking for alternatives,
we found a model in a tremendous program from Brigham Young University.
While we can't take the credit as innovators outright, the change is already
producing noticeable results.
A new policy
Conventional wisdom suggests that
if we make academics more rigorous,
more students will struggle to meet
the cutoffs. But we can simultaneously
implement policies designed to reduce
or eliminate the possibility of a student
slipping through the cracks.
Under the old policy, freshmen were
technically allowed to remain in good
academic standing despite having a
GPA that would put them behind pace
to graduate on time. Like many institutions, Meredith allowed two consecutive
semesters of academic probation before
finally resorting to suspension. While
this might have seemed merciful, this

practice neither provided timely intervention for those not making progress
nor rewarded those who were.
Under our new academic probation
policy, students must show growth and
progress. GPAs are monitored semester
by semester. This prevents unduly flagging students who may have initially excelled but struggled in subsequent years.
Students who don't make the cutoff
receive an academic alert notifying them
of the gravity of the situation. They
also receive recommendations to repeat
courses when necessary and reminders
of support services, such as tutoring and
academic advising. The result is fewer
students spending time on academic
probation, despite facing more rigorous
benchmarks.
Pointless metric
The bottom line is the suspended students likely would have left the institution eventually because they were not on
track to graduate. Now we're better at
identifying the situation and addressing
it quickly, instead of letting it drag on.
While freshman retention figures
may have lagged slightly, we're confident
that second-year retention and graduation rates will increase and make up that
difference.
Hitting and exceeding our retention
goals would have been nice. But it's a
pointless metric if we're not strengthening our academic rigor and doing what's
best for our students.
Brandon Stokes is director of retention
and student success at Meredith College in
Raleigh, North Carolina.
www.universitybusiness.com


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Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of University Business January 2018

University Business January 2018 - Cover1
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University Business January 2018 - 1
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