Retaining freshman students is a vital yet difficult task. Utah Valley University, with its primarily commuter campus, found it especially onerous, with about six out of 10 first-year students opting not to return for their sophomore years. Given that one of the requirements of the Title III grant it had received was to increase retention, the university had a particularly vested interest in succeeding. Yet even after implementing the Hobsons Early Alert system, which allowed retention officials to identify and connect via e-mail with at-risk students, the university continued to struggle with linking to those who needed assistance most.
“The faculty liked it and the students liked it, but we needed to do something that was a little more personal,” says Marcy Glassford, program coordinator of retention. “We tried calling students who got an alert about their faculty members being concerned: ‘Did you get your e-mail and talk to your faculty member? What can we do to help?’ We started talking to them and decided to expand that to helping other specific students - multicultural students with less than a 2.0 GPA, for example, or female students with less than a 2.0. At-risk populations that are struggling.”
Seeking to foster a more personal connection with freshmen, Utah Valley’s Office of Student Success & Retention launched the Retention Mentor program. Administrators hired part-time employees to serve as retention trackers and mentors and placed them in seven key areas around campus, such as the Women’s Resource Center, the Multicultural Center, and elsewhere, and used Hobsons Retain to track contacts with students in order to minimize duplication and record the kind of support that was offered. This more targeted approach kept mentors from overcontacting students, which was a concern.
“I didn’t want students to receive multiple calls in a day,” Glassford says. “There’s one thing reaching out and trying to help them, and another thing someone calling them an hour later and asking the same questions.” Additionally, having a record of contacts allowed Student Success & Retention to specify whether and how to follow up, and it permitted staffers to measure the effectiveness of their efforts by comparing the retention rates of contacted versus noncontacted students.
As it stands, since implementing Early Alert and Retention Mentor a year ago, Utah Valley has boosted freshmen retention from 41 to 55 percent - those 14 additional percentage points representing an increase of 34 percent. Glassford concedes that other factors, such as the wobbly economy, likely play a role in growing the number of first-year students who see the value of staying in school, but she firmly believes that her office’s efforts need to be included when explaining the increase.
“I do think that all of the initiatives we’ve put into place have made a difference,” she says. “I can’t say that one thing specifically is the silver bullet, but by making an effort and reaching out to as many students as we can, I think that has helped.”