By Bret NewcombAmong the most pressing issues concerning post-secondary education is that of student retention.
A study by ACT, Inc., an independent, not-for-profit organization that conducts assessments and research in the areas of education and workforce development, found that student attrition has been on the rise for the last 20 years. The study shows more than a 13 percent drop in student retention from 1983 to 2005 in public universities' undergraduate programs.
This national trend is also reflected at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, and steps are being taken to address the problem.
"Here at UHCL we are no different from our sister institutions," said Dean of Students Anthony Jenkins. "However, everyone from the University President, Provost, Division of Student Services and faculty are working to pull together every resource we have to develop a comprehensive retention strategy that will hopefully have a profound impact on our students."
The first step in coming up with a strategy to handle student retention is to understand what causes the problem in the first place.
"In spite of bringing in large groups of new students our enrollment is not growing," said Darlene Biggers, associate vice president of student services. "We have not kept accurate, consistent data of semester to semester retention or persistence to degree for cohorts so we aren't sure how big of a problem it is. However, looking at the past couple of semesters we saw that about 1,000 students per semester were eligible to return but did not. Now, of that group we aren't sure how many were pursuing degrees or how many were pursuing certificates and had just completed the certificate. We also have quite a few students on academic probation and suspension each year. But the majority of students who don't return are in good academic standing."
The challenges facing students are varied and include insufficient preparation for academia, family constraints, lack of funds, work demands, inadequate childcare and a disconnect with the college community.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling addressed student enrollment and retention in a 2006 Department of Education Study stating, "There are far too many Americans who want to go to college but cannot - because they're either not prepared or cannot afford it."
Secretary Spelling put together a commission to study the state of higher education in 2006 and their findings confirmed what was already apparent to many in the field.
In a summary of their findings the commission found that "access to American higher education is unduly limited by ... inadequate preparation, lack of information about college opportunities, and persistent financial barriers."
Those same reasons are prevalent at UHCL, though Biggers is not completely sure that these are the only reasons for the high turn over.
"We really don't know for sure," Biggers said. "Past surveys have indicated a mixture of general reasons such as financial issues, personal concerns, and family or work issues. Our students are basically nontraditional students who are juggling school, family and work responsibilities and some changes are beyond their control or the university's control. They also mention not being able to get the classes they need when they need them."
A 2002 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the longer a student is enrolled in an institution, the less likely it becomes that the student will leave school without obtaining credentials. For a junior-, senior-level institution like UHCL, that statistic bodes well, but does not alleviate the problem. UHCL is putting systems in place to combat the issue.
"We are now doing regular surveys of student satisfaction and are looking at other ways of obtaining student input," Biggers said. "We are beginning to gather retention data and need to do that in a regular, consistent manner. We also have several projects underway such as calling students who were eligible to return but did not, calling students who withdrew during the semester, and developing an ‘early alert' system so that faculty who are concerned about the progress of a student can alert someone who will follow up with the student to see if he or she needs additional assistance. We are also doing some proactive things to prevent problems before they occur. The Dean of Students Office has been calling new students to see how the semester is going and to apprise them of available resources on campus. Offices like Career and Counseling Services and Intercultural and International Student Services have been doing a lot of outreach activities to acquaint students with services."
As illustrated in studies conducted by NCES, low academic performance at all types of institutions, whether 2-year or 4-year, is a primary factor in student attrition. The "early alert" system would be a means by which professors could intercede on behalf of students who may be having difficulty transitioning to the education environment of UHCL. The system, which is being developed by Jenkins, will seek to connect struggling students with the proper staff on campus to give them every opportunity to succeed at UHCL. "Such a system has been proven to have a significant impact on populations similar to ours," Jenkins said.
For many students, the issue is not success, but being able to afford the opportunity to succeed.
In 2003, the state of Texas deregulated tuition after cutting state funds to public schools. Under the new system, public universities and colleges receive state funds based on enrollment. Anything not covered by state funds must be covered by tuition. As enrollment goes down, state funds follow, and tuition increases. As tuition increases, students who cannot afford the increase forego their education, which lowers enrollment again. Until changes are made, there appears to be no end to this destructive cycle.
Even more disturbing to the commission was that, not only are fewer people completing college degrees, those who do are not adequately prepared to enter the job market.
High levels of student attrition affect many beyond the students themselves; also affected are educational institutions and communities in need of skilled and qualified workers. In the same way the problem affects many, solving the problem will take a collective response.
"This is not a one person or one department effort," Jenkins said. "It will take the entire university. Everything we do, in the classroom and beyond, will impact whether a student stays or leaves."
Not only does UHCL want to see students complete their degrees, the university wants students to succeed after graduation and in life.
"I think of the issue as broader than retention," Biggers said. "That word seems to signify just keeping students enrolled from semester to semester until they graduate. I prefer to think our larger goal is student success - helping students accomplish their goals to the best of their ability and to become the best person they can be. We must motivate and encourage them to set even higher goals - to dream bigger dreams."