By Mary Sprague
Elm Staff Writer
Last year, scrutiny of the retention rate was increased after Washington College lost almost 15 percent of its freshman class, but things appear to be on the upswing.
“You know,” Interim Provost and Dean Patrice DiQuinzio said, “retention is a funny business, because you don’t really know how you did until the following year.”
In the recent past, the retention rate of WC’s freshman class has fluctuated, however, the rate appears to be on the rise with last year’s freshmen class.
“What we look at is the fall cohort. So, students who started in the fall of 2016, what percentage come back for the fall of 2017. And we don’t know that yet,” Dean DiQuinzio said. “Last year, the fall to January retention of the 2015 cohort was 95.65. This year, it’s 96.09. So, we haven’t lost any ground. We’ve gained.”
Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Sarah Feyerherm said, “The final rate last year was 86.4, and we’re at 96 [right now]. So, we’re hoping we’re going to lose less than another 10 percent. We’re sort of tracking like we were last year, but we also think there’s been a lot of initiatives and efforts put forth with this class this year that we believe will result in losing fewer this spring.”
Some of those initiatives include the creation of a Retention Working Group (RWG), improvements in financial support, Peer Mentor Groups, pre-orientation experiences, and an increase in personal academic support.
“The RWG meets regularly, and that involves two of us from Student Affairs, two folks from Academic Affairs, as well as someone from admissions,” Dean Feyerherm said. “We continue to meet and look at and discuss the initiatives, what can we do better, how can we communicate better with each other to make sure that we’re not missing students, how do we target certain programs to reach those students. That’s actually a slightly larger group than it was before, to bring in some different voices. So, that’s been helpful.”
The foremost reason students choose to leave WC is expenses. The College has put into place a number of financial initiatives to make the cost of education more manageable and affordable.
“All of President [Sheila] Bair’s affordability issues go toward this, particularly the Fixed for 4, the new tuition model,” Dean DiQuinzio said. “Every year, toward the end of the year, I’d have a number of kids come in and they’d say, ‘I’m not coming back, I just can’t do it.’ And I realized, they’d just gotten their financial aid award for the next year. They saw tuition had gone up, they were going to have to borrow more. So we’re not going to have that problem moving forward.”
Dean Feyerherm reiterated this. “Students knowing that, after next year, for their remaining time, they can count on that tuition being the same, is certainly an incentive to stay.”
In addition to tuition initiatives, President Bair’s fundraising for scholarship programs is expected to keep students at WC. These scholarships include George’s Brigade and the Saver’s Scholarship.
“We’d like to have no unmet need,” Dean DiQuinzio said, “but we have to raise money in order to have that. So that’s something [President Bair] has been working really hard on.”
Peer Mentor Groups and Resident Assistants have also been given increased training in order to help new students find their niche. This personal support is key to many when navigating the new and intimidating college environment.
“One of the things that helps people be happy and have a satisfying experience here is to find that smaller niche. For some students it’s a little harder to make those connections, so we’ve been thinking about ways to get their Peer Mentors and their RA’s engaged with them, and help them,” Dean DiQuinzio said.
“We continue to do a lot of really intensive work on the ground level with the peer mentors and the RA’s,” Dean Feyerhem said. “A lot of the work has really been focused on engaging first-year students who might not seem to have become involved in a club or an organization, and really working with those students on figuring out what’s their niche at WC. That doesn’t mean they have to be involved in five or six different organizations, but finding what’s that one place that really gets you excited.”
Another path to finding these special interests is first-year pre-orientation groups.
“We are definitely going to have more pre-orientation options for the 2017 cohort,” Dean DiQuinzio said. “We have data that shows that students who do a pre-orientation experience retain at higher rates.”
Students also leave for academic reasons. If a student is not performing at the level they expected, they are more likely to seek alternative educational options.
“We hired a faculty member who’s focusing on first-year students who have struggled academically in their first semester. She’s been meeting with all of those students,” said Dean Feyerherm.
Interim Associate Provost of Academic Services Andrea Lange has been overseeing this initiative. According to Dr. Lange, the newly-implemented Student Success Coordinator, “works with freshmen on academic problems, and offers ways to help, especially involving on-campus resources for improvement in confidence and grades.”
The combination and continuation of these initiatives makes for a positive approach to the retention report for the 2016 fall cohort, which will come out during the 2017 fall semester.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Dean Feyerherm said.
By Mary Sprague