Tech focuses on three areas to boost retention

Now that Tennessee’s higher education funding formula is based on retention and graduation rates, Tech is increasing its focus on recruitment, advisement and alternative degree programs-the areas it thinks will most likely boost its numbers. “The first step is recruiting the right kind of student for Tech,” said President Bob Bell. “If you recruit the right kind of student, then you will most likely be successful at graduating them on time with a completed degree. So we really need to focus on our recruiting practices.”

Bell said that Tech needs to focus on future students with interests that mesh cohesively with its various colleges. If Tech recruits students like these, then it is expected to strengthen these collegiate areas while also successfully retaining these students. If they are truly interested and capable in their area of study, then they are more likely to stay with Tech and complete their degrees.

But Bell acknowledges that advisement also plays a large role in student retention.

“We really have to recognize that a senior in high school will not always realize on their own what the job market is like and what career will suit them the best,” Bell said. “They also won’t usually learn that during their freshman year either. But that is what college is about: exploring career choices and deciding which one fits best. A successful advisement process, though, means students will take less time choosing a major and career.”

Tech surveyed 522 freshman students last fall about various aspects of their collegiate experience. Out of 441 who responded to questions regarding their advisement process, 4.8 percent didn’t know who their advisor was, 14.1 percent had a bad experience with their advisor and 52.2 percent weren’t aware of the advisement services their college offered.

With plans to improve these numbers, Tech has formed a committee to review advising services. It is made up of the directors of the major University advising centers and is led by Edith Duvier, College of Arts and Sciences Student Success Center director.

Jack Armistead, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, also has several ideas he thinks will improve advisement, and ultimately retention and graduation rates.

“My personal thought is if we could center some form of an advising center in the [RUC], it would help make advising more efficient and convenient,” Armistead said. “The UC would then be a hub for students seeking assistance with things like advisement or financial aid matters.”

Armistead also said that he would like to see an early alert system in place for advisors to use in conjunction with professor-student interaction.

If a professor notices a student excessively missing class or failing to complete assignments, he or she would then use the early alert system to warn the student’s advisor. It is thought that this system would preemptively counteract any issues the student may be experiencing, helping maintain their grades and encouraging his or her retention at Tech.

“We are also working on our alternative degrees or alternative career paths,” Bell said. “A student may come to Tech wanting to major in a given field. Perhaps they find out they aren’t quite suited for that program of study. In some cases we have good alternatives for them, but in others we simply don’t.

“We want to provide another alternative for, say, our nursing students. They would still have a career in public health or health administration, they just wouldn’t serve as actual nurses.”

Among several possible alternative degree programs being discussed are the Certified Child Life Specialist in the School of Agriculture and Human Ecology and Healthcare Administration in the School of Nursing. The CCLS program has already been approved and is currently awaiting funding since it will require a new teaching position.

Armistead said that in the current budget environment, the University would have to create new programs that wouldn’t require a major budget increase.

Other changes coming to Tech’s campus, like the Living Learning Villages and the Learning Commons in the Angelo and Janette Volpe Library, are aimed at increasing retention.

“The Learning Villages will help participating students feel more involved on campus and in the community, while the new Dean of Library and Learning Assistance will help students succeed outside of the classroom,” said Armistead. “I think that these two initiatives are going to be the most effective at increasing retention and graduation rates.”

The University decided to focus on these areas after internal discussion and planning.

Since Tech doesn’t have an official retention officer, Armistead currently oversees and implements retention and degree completion regulations. He also leads the Retention Committee, nicknamed the Retention Roundtable, which is a discussion group consisting of 18 administration leaders. The committee meets every two weeks and discusses issues like retention, degree completion and how to improve both of these at Tech.

The committee is not an action committee, but rather a sounding board for those with executive responsibility relating to retention efforts. They can use ideas from the discussions to create regulations within their own departments.

The increased focus on recruitment, advisement and alternative degree programs is expected to aid Tech while it actively pursues an 8-10 percent retention rate increase. The University currently has a freshman-to-sophomore retention rate of 72 percent.

The Tennessee higher education funding formula changes are associated Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010, which was passed by the Tennessee General Assembly on Jan. 21.

The act was influenced by Complete College America-a nonprofit organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and dedicated to improving states’ graduation rates-and was developed with suggestions from Stan Jones, CCA president.