President’s Perspective: Growing enrollment by boosting retention

Randy J. DunnBy Randy J. Dunn


It’s no secret at YSU that we’ve been working hard and investing substantially in efforts to increase student retention. With “Enrollment” as the first of our 3E Strategic Directions, the success of this retention work will be critical for meeting our enrollment goals into the future. (An old maxim in the enrollment business states that the quickest way to grow enrollment is to boost retention—and I believe that wholeheartedly.)

Enhancing student retention at YSU emphasizes finding ways to keep our students continuously enrolled and engaging them with services to enhance academic success. This can be especially challenging at a place like Youngstown State, where students have extremely busy and complex lives beyond the classroom. The majority of our students intersperse school with jobs and family commitments (over half are 22 years old or above). Our students have clear financial need with 88 percent receiving some type of aid. In addition, over half of our students are first-generation and may not have a family member or mentor who can help guide them through the complexities (and frustration at times!) of college-going.  Many of our students enter college with demonstrated potential, but lacking the full academic preparation to succeed at the college level.

The philosophy and principles that guide our “suite” of retention initiatives are not invented out of whole cloth. Staff in the Center for Student Progress relies heavily on the best work in this field, including a 2006 study – The Toolbox Revisited – by Clifford Adelman, senior research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education. Adelman’s study was a signature work which found the key to college retention (and ultimately graduation) is academic momentum.

Adelman determined that having 20 credits by the end of the first year in college, maintaining continuous enrollment (even if part time), completing gateway courses, and having a rising trend in GPA are more important than other factors typically cited as impacting college student retention.  Conversely, Adelman found that no-penalty course withdrawals and no-credit course repeats were death knells for student progress, as were grades of W or NCR that blocked another student from sitting in a course.

I recently attended a statewide conference with a few of our YSU trustees in Columbus where we heard a great presentation from Georgia State on the highly structured interventions they undertake to support their retention efforts – with notable success over a similar student body it appears. It was rewarding to learn that YSU is using many of the same components as GSU.

Just remember though: We already have one of the best tools we need in our YSU toolbox. A most effective way to keep student momentum going is to offer targeted programs aimed at engaging them with faculty and staff, and then connecting them with specific programs. We fully implemented the Starfish Retention System this spring for this purpose. Faculty have been instrumental in alerting students and academic support personnel when there is a concern with student attendance or academic progress, and also in providing kudos to reinforce good academic progress.

During Week Two and Week Five, Starfish early warning surveys have been completed by close to 40 percent of our faculty. In addition, many faculty continue to raise flags throughout the semester. Raised flags result in an immediate email outreach to students, text messages from the CSP, and postcards letting students know that YSU cares about their success.

Midway through this FA13 term, over 4,000 flags have been raised. More importantly, hundreds of flags have been resolved through student contact with a faculty member, a peer mentor, a tutor, a CSP intervention specialist, an academic advisor, or a Supplemental Instruction leader. Since the inception of Starfish, YSU has seen an increase in course completion, fewer non-attendance Fs, and increased retention of first-year students.

The challenge now is to have EVERYONE involved and participating in the Starfish process. We have to engage many YSU students to build that academic momentum…and we can’t do it without your help.  Students’ time with us is often fleeting, so our response to them is vital – a response that gives them both the tools and the desire to be successful students who stay-the-course to graduation.

In closing, I want to thank Jonelle Beatrice, executive director of Student Life, for her assistance on the column this week!