Tech looks for new ways to boost retention

Tech’s Retention Committee will use this year to evaluate the effectiveness of past retention programs and to focus on students at an individual level.

Retention refers to the percentage of freshmen students who return for their sophomore year. Currently, Tech’s retention sits at 73 percent which, according to U.S. News and World Report, is the 9th best rate among 4-year colleges in the state of Tennessee.

In March of 2010, Tech committed to upping the retention rate by as much as 10 percent. Tech immediately established plans for the Living and Learning Villages as well as the Library Commons, which opened for the first time in August.

But in following the two high-profile projects, Robert Hodum, chairman of the Retention Committee, has emphasized that the committee will be dedicated to evaluating the current retention programs.

“We certainly want to continue our efforts in retention, but we would be remiss in not evaluating what we have done,” Hodum said.

According to Hodum, many institutions undertake large-scale retention campaigns but very few will actually review whether or not those campaigns work, an issue Hodum admits that Tech’s Retention Committee has been guilty of in the past. He remarks that, despite “getting on the bandwagon” of ideas like the University 1020 classes, retention has not increased by a substantial amount over the years.

According to a report published earlier this month, since 1995 the retention rate at Tech has never dropped lower than 69 percent or risen higher than 76 percent.

“Retention is like hand-to-hand combat,” Hodum said. “If you are tactically strategizing a battle, it’s one thing to be the commanding officer and to move your little pieces on the map, but it’s something else to actually be out there in the battle. I think that higher education has a whole lot of folks moving the pegs on the map and not as many people in hand-to-hand combat.”

Additionally, future retention efforts will be motivated by personal connections with students.

“We really feel like, to change retention, it’s going to come down to those personal one-on-one interactions with the students,” Hodum said.

One of the ideas that the committee is exploring is centralized advisement at least for students in their freshman and maybe sophomore years. Faculty advisers wouldn’t be utilized until the student’s junior year. The committee believes that centralized advisement would bring some consistency to the advising process by having a team of dedicated advisors who would not be concerned with teaching a class, doing their own research, publishing, or trying to secure tenure. Instead the advisers would be dedicated to only helping students.

The Retention Committee is not ignorant to the concerns of students, both those who stay and those who leave. In fact, questionnaires and surveys are regularly distributed to returning students and those who leave Tech voluntarily, as in students who transfer to another school.

Hodum spoke face-to-face with almost 50 freshmen last year to discuss how to improve their experiences and received written feedback from countless persistors, students who returned for their sophomore year.

Few of the students whodecide to leave Tech provide information as to why they’ve left. However, the Retention Committee does have an analysis that compares persistors against non-persistors across categories such as: attempted semester hours, high school GPA, ACT scores, and earned hours. Surprisingly, the entering criteria scores are very similar for students who stay and students who leave.

“Students leave for one main reason, they’re unsatisfied,” Hodum said. “Either they aren’t satisfied with their life academically, or they’re socially not satisfied.”

The Retention Committee should have a strategic retention plan to present to the President by next spring that will encompass an evaluation of all past and current programs, an explanation of future goals and recommendations for achieving those goals.

“We would like to see tangible results by the end of this strategic planning period,” Hodum said. “We would like to see a freshman to sophomore retention rate of 80 percent by 2015.”