By: 
Marcia Layton Turner
Honoree: 
Culver-Stockton College

Despite a number of initiatives to improve retention rates at Culver-Stockton College, the Missouri school found itself underperforming in comparison to other institutions.

Administrators, recognizing the need to try something new, focused specifically on freshman-to-sophomore retention, which was 65 percent, says Holly Andress-Martin, associate dean for academic success.

All freshmen now receive a printed “Passport to Success” at the beginning of a required semester-long course known as First Year Experience.

“Instead of visiting countries, they receive stamps for participating in campus engagement activities, educational support and life-skills learning activities,” says Andress-Martin. Most students earn a majority of the stamps available.

During the first year of the program (2012), students had to complete all 17 Passport activities to receive a 100 percent in the class. Five points were deducted from their grade for every activity missed.

Andress-Martin says the activities spark “intense and meaningful conversations”—such as meetings with advisors during which students are asked pointed questions about the challenges of campus life.

National Trends Link

  • According to the 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement, one-third of first-year students rarely met with an advisor.
  • Perceptions of a supportive campus environment are linked to the number of meetings with an academic advisor, the survey found.
  • First-year students who earned higher grades than they had expected were more engaged in learning strategies, reported greater use of effective teaching practices, and studied more compared to students who performed below their expectations.

Freshman-to-sophomore retention has increased by 11 percent since Passport to Success launched three years ago. While that improvement isn’t totally due to the program, it is considered a major contributor.

Officials have been tweaking Passport to Success. An activity removed from the program but which will be brought back this year requires students to attend at least one student organization meeting. This, for example, could encourage an athlete to check out the chess club or student government.

While many of the activities can be completed early in the semester, others are scheduled at specific times—such as an academic lecture or a fine arts event.

Students must attend at least 28 academic and cultural events during their four years on campus, so the passport helps them get started fulfilling that requirement. “The engagement doesn’t stop, just the passport program does,” says Andress-Martin.