Retention rate rises to 76 percent

The retention rate for the 2016-17 academic year at FSU has risen to 76 percent, two points higher than FSU’s retention rate for 2015-16, according to Ann Caso, associate director of institutional research.

According to Linda Vaden-Goad, provost and vice president of academic affairs, this retention rate is the highest the University has ever achieved.

According to Caso, retention is the rate at which students return for consecutive semesters. “For example, in fall 2016, 738 students began at the University as first-time, full-time students of which 560 students returned to FSU in fall 2017, resulting in a retention rate of 76 percent.”

The graduation rate as of 2017 is 54 percent. The graduation rate is determined by groups of students who entered the University as first-year students and continued through college at FSU. The graduation rate is then calculated by how many students completed their graduation requirements in six years at the University, Caso said.

Based on the six-year window, of the 919 students who entered FSU in 2011, 495 of them graduated, she added. The rate of students who entered in 2010 and graduated by 2016 was 55 percent, according to the Framingham State website.

Vaden-Goad said there is no clear reason as to why the graduation rate dropped, but some students choose to “stop out” and finish college later on.

She added the University has started a new program called “Return to the Herd,” which is aimed at getting students who left the University to return and finish their graduation requirements.

“Our hope is that our students are getting what they need, however, so we are glad they are doing well, regardless of where they finish. It is important for students to finish their degrees, and we are here to help them when they return,” she said.

Lorretta Holloway, vice president of enrollment and student development, said, “All universities are evaluated by the state. Retention isn’t just how many students you graduate. … The frustrating thing about retention is that we frequently graduate more people than we take in in any given year. Transfer students, for example, don’t count toward the graduation rate.”

The 2016-17 data for retention and graduation rates at other Massachusetts state universities is not available.

Holloway said the graduation rate may “seem low,” but it doesn’t account for students who transfer to other universities and graduate from them.

She said as a parent of two college students, she knows how important it is for first-year students to feel a sense of community. “College is very expensive in cost and in time. We want students to come and stay and feel like they’re supported and feel like this is a place they can find who they’re going to be and how they’re going to be citizens of the planet.”

She said she always likes to ask parents of incoming college students, “What do we want the future of our country to look like?”

She added, “We want to have people who are able to fulfill their potential. We want people coming out who are widely read and interested in what they’ve studied. … We want them to be the people who are going to be good bosses, good colleagues, engaged in their community.”

Vaden-Goad said, “I think many students may not realize how important the first year really is to their ultimate success.  It sets the stage for the rest of the college career in many ways. And for those students who didn’t do as well as they wish they had done, making it to the second year gives them that opportunity to rethink and do better.”

Lauren Keville, coordinator of student retention and graduation success, said, “It’s very complicated to give you one answer about graduation rates. The basics of it are students apply to a school, decide to attend a school, find out it isn’t a good fit and transfer to a different school.”

Keville said at FSU, there are a lot of first-generation students, who may or may not have someone at home who understands the demands or expense of college. Without the proper support or direction, some of these students might not graduate in four years.

Keville added, “Some of them will transfer out. … That’s normal. It’s something we try to get them to understand – that you don’t have to know what you want to do with the rest of your life.”

Holloway said, “Sometimes, people come to college and college isn’t for them. … For me, what’s important is that post-secondary education. Maybe college isn’t for you, but continuing your education in some way is.”

Holloway said retention isn’t just about numbers but is a social justice and community issue as well.

She said the University wants to “evolve” the model of advising because it will help improve retention. She doesn’t want students to look at advising as one stop where they receive their PIN for class registration.

She added she wants advising to be like a mentoring program.

Tasia Clemons is a senior and administrative resident assistant. She has been a resident assistant for three years.

She said, “I became a resident assistant because I am very involved in social justice. I wanted to see more of that in the residence halls. … I was a supplemetal  instructor before I  was a resident assistant, so I liked working with students on their academics and I thought I’d also like working with them in their personal lives.

“I feel like when there’s someone in the building who is living your life in your building, residents can feel like they have someone who knows what they’re going through. … You’re the first point of contact when someone is feeling like Framingham State isn’t their place. … You can help them find their passion,” Clemons added.

Software implementation: a way to communicate with students

Keville said one aspect of retention success is utilizing the software Starfish. Starfish is sold as retention software designed to “harness the power of the campus community in order to engage, motivate and graduate more students,” according to the Starfish website.

Keville said the software isn’t just for retention, but for communication as well.

She said her job is outreach and software implementation. She said she wants to find out how to improve professors’ jobs. “What would it take to make your job easier so you can focus more on students?”

She said one example of “simplifying communication” at FSU is creating online appointments for the Career Services Office. 

Starfish gives professors the ability to “flag” students of concern regarding absences or low grades. Keville said this is a way to help each first-year student adjust to “being an adult” and being monitored less than they were in high school.

She said this is a “success tool” for students so no student falls “between the cracks” when they begin to struggle in their classes.

Keville acknowledged that for upperclassmen, the software may not be useful, but for the freshman class, “We can still be proactive. Help students understand they need to communicate with their faculty.”

She said in four years, the software hopefully will be fully integrated into most classrooms.

“It takes time for the culture,” Keville said. “You don’t train 5,000 students. You put something there   students   want  and  eventually the culture will change.”

Keville said the software has approximately a 50 percent adoption rate, “which is a big deal.” 

Student involvement: first-year programs connecting students with the community

Ben Trapanick, director of first-year programs, coordinates the Wet Feet Retreat weekend, orientation sessions and Foundations, which are all geared toward “helping first-year students succeed.”

Trapanick said, “We start off with orientation and that’s the first-time students are really interacting with the University in a meaningful way. … That’s when they’re really starting to feel like they’re Framingham State University students.”

He said orientation is important so new students can explore the campus and have a better understanding of what will be expected of them as college students. “We want them to find out what life is really like at Framingham State.”

Hailee McDonald, junior and recently appointed head orientation leader (OL), said she became an orientation leader because she wanted to help students in the stressful transition to college. “I felt motivated to become an OL because it’s getting to be a part of so many peoples’ day one – a positive day one can really affect your outlook of school.”

She said orientation leaders are in charge of getting the students around campus, making students feel welcome and introducing them to FSU.

Jace Williams, senior and orientation leader, said, “I wanted to make sure that incoming first years, freshmen and transfers knew that there was support at this school for the LGBT community. Being a face up on stage stating that my pronouns are they/them, I think can be huge for a first year who is nervous about coming to a new place and not knowing if they’d be accepted or even safe.”

Re-Imagining the First Year

The Re-imagining the First Year (RFY) project is “aimed at ensuring success for all students, particularly those who have historically been underserved by higher education: low income, first generation and students of color,” according to the RFY website.

Vaden-Goad said FSU is one of 44 schools nationally to be selected to participate in the project.

She said, “Our focus and determination to join together and re-think the first year has made a big difference for us here. We did join together as one team on behalf of our students and community and it mattered. We all are excited about the positive outcomes and look forward to more change in that same positive direction.”

Elaine Beilin, director of CELTSS and English professor, said FSU recently received a grant of $15,000 to fund “high-impact practices” in courses that are primarily for first-year students.

She added, “I think this grant gives us a great opportunity to bring faculty dedicated to teaching first-year students together to develop the pedagogy for specific courses.”

She said, “A liberal arts education can be transformative: it can empower students to develop the ways they think, read, write, speak, feel and act.”

Beilin added, “Idealistically, I want that for every student who enrolls here, and when obstacles intervene, I want professors, administrators and staff to work together to make every effort to keep that student in our community.”

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