The number and quality of personal relationships are frequently what drive college freshmen to remain at a particular college or university. The national average for freshmen retention is right around 75 percent, reports Brian Yates, executive director of the Center for Academic Support and Advising Services (CASAS) at Liberty University (Va.). And yet officials at Liberty, which had a freshman retention rate in line with the national average, felt they could do better. With a university culture focused on helping every student succeed and thrive, Liberty maintained 18 professional advisors to guide its students in making decisions about their college careers.
What began as an initiative to increase students’ connection to the school became increasingly challenging as advisors struggled to keep up with the rising number of students each was assigned, with the number of students enrolled in the university approaching 12,000. Each advisor started with about 500 advisees, but that number rose to nearly 700 each, at which point Yates’ team began evaluating other ways to reduce each person’s load.
One option was to hire an additional 15 professional advisors at a cost of around $500,000, which would reduce each advisor’s workload to closer to 250 students. However, Yates was challenged by the provost to overhaul the entire process to be more effective, and more feasible. There simply wasn’t an additional $500,000 in the budget for more advisors.
An ongoing exit survey of students at Liberty revealed five main reasons students do not persist in pursuing a degree, one of which was a lack of connection, reports Yates. And even students who elected to stay at Liberty provided feedback indicating they wanted more time with their advisors.
To alleviate the growing reliance on its professional advisors, Liberty decided to leverage the mentoring ability of its faculty to supplement the services its professional advisors were providing. In addition, by implementing Microsoft CRM in the fall of 2010, CASAS provided a way to link all of the support services Liberty students had access to. “Our focus was connecting the academic side with the services side,” says Yates.
Not only were freshmen now met by an advisor or faculty member during their first month on campus?and by both during the first semester?but both advisor and mentor can now document contacts and suggest follow-up opportunities through CASAS. Today, nearly 400 faculty members serve as mentors, supporting the professional advisors, whose primary role still is to maintain records regarding each of their students, while providing focused attention to freshmen.
Despite the added responsibility faculty members now shoulder, there have been few complaints, says Yates. In fact, faculty report they enjoy the encounters with students. Time spent meeting with students is generally done during regular office hours.
In the university’s first year of implementation, just under 92 percent of freshmen registered for spring classes, which is up from 88 percent as of the same time last year. And at the end of their first semester, 89 percent of freshmen were in good standing, versus 85 percent last year.
“Using technology and coordinating resources enables us to effectively support students,” says Yates. -M.L.T.