Arrivals and Departures: UConn Excels at Retaining Students

<p>Leo Lachut, a Center for Undergraduate Education mentor, advises Melody Bennet, a senior Biology and Sociology major, for her classes next semester. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli</p>

Leo Lachut, a counselor with Student Support Services, advises Melody Bennet, a senior biology and sociology major, about her classes next semester. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli

UConn works hard to attract excellent students. But the University administration’s work isn’t over once a student enrolls and starts classes – it’s only beginning.

“We don’t accept students and then tell them they’re on their own for the next four years,” says Lee Melvin, UConn’s vice president for enrollment management and planning. “Once students are here, the University wants to do everything we can to help guide them toward timely graduation.”

Universities, including UConn, keep careful track of what are known as “retention rates” – simply, how many students return after each year.

“This is something we are very aware of, approach in a structured manner, and invest a lot of resources in,” says Melvin. “We complement our fine academic programs and excellent faculty with a strong cadre of academic enrichment and support programs, as well as a nationally-recognized Retention & Graduation Task Force that meets regularly throughout the year to discuss issues and provide recommendations to senior administration.

“It’s important to us as an institution that our students become acclimated and comfortable on campus and in class so they can succeed,” Melvin adds. “Having a high rate of retention reflects well on a university and its students.”

Every university has a natural rate of attrition: the majority of students come back after the first year, and that number gradually falls as the second, third, and fourth year pass.

UConn’s numbers are among the best for public universities nationally: the one-year retention rate (incoming freshmen who come back after their first year) is at 93 percent in the most recent data, well above the current national average of 79 percent. The two-year retention is at 88 percent , which is up from 80 percent in 2000; the three-year is 85 percent , up from 78 percent 10 years ago.

UConn’s most recent four and five-year graduation rates are 68 percent and 79 percent, respectively, while the national averages are 48 percent and 53 percent.

“We’re very pleased with our numbers,” says Melvin. “We have been quite intentional in promoting a campus climate in which students expect and strive to ‘Finish in Four.’ But our work is not done. You always want to improve.”

And that is where retention and graduation efforts come in. They begin during the orientation sessions over the summer and when students first arrive. These sessions are specifically designed to familiarize students with the campus, its amenities, and the flow of life in college.

“The better prepared a student is, the faster he or she is going to be integrated into university life,” says Maria Sedotti, who heads UConn’s orientation program. “What we want to do is to provide an easy transition for new UConn students.”

These efforts also include the “Week of Welcome” and the First Year Experience courses the University began offering several years ago, which are designed for freshmen. Also critical are the various learning communities connected to the residence halls, where the vast majority of UConn students live.

“If you’re comfortable or happy in your environment, the odds are you’re going to want to stay there,” says Melvin.

But retention is hardly one-size-fits-all. As the University wends its way through the mountain of data it collects, patterns begin to develop, and understanding them is a key to ensuring retention rates are high.

“There are historical trends that we watch among students who leave the University,” says Melvin.

For example, he says, out-of-state students are more likely to leave than those from in-state, and retention rates are higher for white and Asian students than for African-American or Latino students.

“Knowing that, we’re able to target our efforts more precisely,” says Melvin. He says the cultural centers play a vital role in helping underrepresented student populations navigate their way through the University. This falls under the umbrella of mentoring, which – in its many forms – is a key component in overall retention efforts.

“To a great extent, retention becomes more personal,” says Melvin. “If we have international students from, say, Korea, we might ask an upperclassman who is also Korean to work with them when those students arrive on campus. If we have a female freshman from California, having another female Californian who knows the campus taking her under her wing is often beneficial. It’s about establishing connections between people.”

National research and survey data shows that students who are active on campus whether through social activities, service organizations, or athletics are more likely to remain in school and make greater progress toward their degree.

Another population the University focuses on is low-income students who are the first in their families to go to college; these students work with the Center for Academic Programs.

“We often depend on other people to get our bearings when we do something new,” says Maria D. Martinez, who heads the Center. “If you’re going to college and have parents or older siblings who went before you, you can talk to them about it and get a sense of what life will be like on campus. But if you don’t have that, beginning college may be more jarring. We work with these students specifically to get them acclimated and help them succeed.”

The data the University collects also shows why students choose UConn – and why some leave.

“We know students generally choose UConn because we are seen as a top-notch school with outstanding faculty that is also a great value,” says Melvin. “Students see their UConn education and experience as giving them what they need to compete for jobs or go on to graduate school after they complete their bachelor’s degree. They rightfully have high expectations.”

In addition, UConn gathers feedback from those who voluntarily leave. There are perennial reasons, according to Melvin: out-of-state students sometimes decide they want to go to college closer to home, and others can’t gain admission to the program of their choice, or on some occasions, decide that UConn does not have a major they would like.

A cause more specific to UConn, however, is that Storrs lacks a traditional college town feel.

“With development of the Storrs downtown project now underway,” says Melvin, “we think this concern will soon be addressed.”

Overall, when it comes to student satisfaction with UConn, Melvin points to 97 percent as the most telling number. That’s the percentage of alumni who would recommend UConn to a friend or relative – a personal “seal of approval” that counts for a great deal.