Early involvement crucial for retention

By John Solewin
February 18, 2010

Every year huge sums of money are spent by colleges and universities all around the country. The goal of their expenditures is to convince prospective students to spend the next four years in residence on their campuses.
With hundreds of options, the competition to attract students is fierce between schools. In general, the schools seem to do a great job of initially attracting the students; however, retaining them for four years is often the greater challenge.
How to improve student retention is a problem, especially in these tough economic times, that Cabrini and other private colleges are trying to solve. Once a freshman class has been chosen, welcomed, and made acquainted with the campus routine through orientation programs and classes, what is it that helps the students bond with each other and the school?
It would seem that if students form attachments to each other and to the routines of their campus life and feel invested in achieving the goal of obtaining a degree, then thoughts of leaving their school for another or to not attend college at all would be less likely to occur.
Organizations such as ACT.org have conducted surveys in an effort to study the issue of retention. They found that schools that have ben successful in improving their student retention statistics have a few things in common.
First, they have strong academic advising programs in which freshmen receive career/life planning counseling and ‘at risk’ students benefit from early interventions.
Next, they offer first-year programs such as freshman seminar and living and learning communities. Lastly, they provide students with learning assistance like tutoring and math/reading labs. In general, however, although each of these efforts can help to foster student success, they don’t speak to the academically strong student that hasn’t formed a strong school bond.
Cabrini employs many of the programs that have been shown to help retain students. It offers a variety of assistance opportunities through peer tutoring, math and writing labs. Also, thanks to small class sizes, teachers get to know their students and willingly give their time to help students struggling with their course work. There is also the new living and learning communities initiative which seems to be receiving positive feedback from the students involved.
Cabrini’s orientation program is good, but more needs to be done to make sure that every new student, whether they are athletes or transfer students, has the opportunity to participate in orientation activities.
Finally, the Cabrini faculty are caring and thoughtful advisors that help their students negotiate the details of scheduling courses. It would be worthwhile to encourage freshmen to begin focusing right away on career goals by helping them plan their coursework not only in the short range, but in the long range. A freshman should see graduation as attainable and their advisor as a mentor that will guide them along the way.
Obviously, Cabrini has many of the academic pieces required for improved student retention in place, with only minor adjustments needed. But academics aren’t the only important part of a student’s college experience.
I have found through my own experience and observations that students that are involved in campus life are generally happier, go home on weekends less often and feel a greater pride in their school. As a Cabrini freshman, I ran cross country and track and became involved in student government. Through those activities, I developed a large and diverse group of friends. I was busy and involved – too involved to think about what Cabrini might not be offering that I might find somewhere else.
During my time at the school, my interests and activities have changed, but my level of involvement has increased. As an orientation counselor I have gotten to know some of this year’s freshman class. The students that seem to be the most content with their choice of college are those that are involved in sports, community/church service or other organized activities such as student government and yearbook.
Getting involved at Cabrini is easy and since every student pays the $500.00 student activity fee, they are foolish if they don’t take advantage of what the school has to offer. However, although student involvement benefits the student, it also benefits the school as a whole, so it is worthwhile to consider new ways to get kids to be active community members.
Last year the school tried to encourage the freshmen to take part in various campus activities through the passport initiative. Students received a stamp for attending or taking part in a school activity. Stamps could then be submitted into drawings for prizes. The passport program wasn’t especially successful; students quickly realized that they could show up at an event, collect the stamp and then leave. The goal of the program was good, it just didn’t achieve the expected outcome – increased student involvement.
Maybe a more drastic step needs to be taken. Maybe the way to increase student involvement, in an effort to improve retention rates, is to alter freshman course requirements. How about offering college credits for participating in extracurricular activities? Instead of a freshman taking five classes each semester for a total of 10 in their first year, offer them the opportunity to receive up to three credits for participating in either a campus sport or organization.
Getting students involved in athletics, student government, community service, the yearbook, the school newspaper or any of the other campus activities also enhances the school’s core curriculum, The Explorations.
One less Explorations course requirement in favor of real-life explorations might encourage students to get involved in activities outside of the classroom. An obvious benefit for the student is that within the first months of their Cabrini education, they become active campus contributors of their time and talents. They are also establishing friendships with not only other freshmen, but upperclassmen with similar interests. The anticipated benefit to the school is that its retention rate improves because its students have formed long lasting bonds to each other and to Cabrini.
Finally, creating a positive, fun filled campus atmosphere would go a long way in keeping students around on weekends and therefore in the long run. A student center where kids could sit around and chat, play games, study, eat or just hang out would be a great addition to the school community.
Boosting programs with SGA that involve becoming more schoolspirited would also be good. It would be great to bring back Spring Fling. After talking to Cabrini alumni, Spring Fling was a day of the year where kids could be kids and form a bond with the college that they would never forget.
Other activities throughout the school year such as informal barbeques held out on the main lawn would bolster the sense of community for the students. Tailgating before or after sporting events, with a little less campus safety interference, would improve school spirit and interest in Cabrini’s wonderful teams. It is the memories that are formed during the college years that keep alumni returning and contributing to campus long after graduation.
Cabrini is a great place to be a student. With just some minor adjustments, all of its students will stick around long enough to benefit from a Cabrini education and they will look back fondly on many great memories.

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John Solewin

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