By Cliff Foster
When Stephen Jordan joined MSU Denver in 2005, one of his priorities as president was to improve rates of retention and, by extension, graduation. He boosted faculty ranks, dramatically strengthened the First Year Success program and launched the Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) initiative, which has not only increased the Latino enrollment rate but also introduced new approaches to keep all students in the classroom.
By one measure, the efforts are paying off. The first-time, full-time freshman retention rate is 66 percent, up from 62 percent in fall 2005, and the retention rate for full-time transfer students is 74 percent compared with 68.6 percent in 2005.
Now, Jordan and the University are raising the bar.
The 2012-17 strategic plan sets new targets: a freshman retention rate of 75 percent and a six-year graduation rate of 44 percent, which mirrors the percentage of other HSI institutions. For transfer students, it calls for an 85 percent retention rate and a six-year graduation rate of 60 percent—all by 2017.
“I and the Board of Trustees applaud the well-thought-out and ambitious retention and graduation goals put forth in the strategic plan,” Jordan says. “I have known since I arrived in 2005 that retention and graduation were issues that needed to be addressed, and these rates are what I had hoped we’d achieve in my tenure here.”
Calls for reform
Retention and graduation rates are the traditional metrics of student success. But the way graduation rates, in particular, must be calculated under federal rules is being questioned. MSU Denver is among a consortium of institutions pressing for a more comprehensive way of measuring student success.
As University officials were reminded recently, the current system doesn’t tell the whole story. The Oct. 1 online CBS MoneyWatch article headlined “50 state universities with best, worst grad rates” put MSU Denver into the second category. It said the University’s six-year graduation rate in 2010 was 20.5 percent based on data collected by the Chronicle of Higher Education, including from the federal National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).
The system tracks four- and six-year completion rates only for first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students who begin their college educations in the fall semester—a very limited category that excludes thousands of MSU Denver students. For example, the federal data doesn’t include transfer students, who this fall make up 56.6 percent of the total student body of 22,976, and part-time students, who comprise 42 percent.
In addition, University officials point out that most MSU Denver students are chipping away at their education as time and money allows—balancing work, family and school obligations simultaneously—and may not graduate in the four- or six-year timeframes.
"This data does not reflect a single thing this University has done in the last seven years," says Jordan, adding that the data would not have even included President Barack Obama since he graduated from Columbia University after transferring from Occidental College. As a result, he and others have advocated for a more inclusive way to measure student success.
The University is among 19 institutions participating in a study of a model developed at the University of Alaska, Anchorage that tracks graduation rates and student performance over 10 years. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the model considers all students—full-time, part-time, transfers and others who are not captured by IPEDS.
Additional reforms were recommended by the U.S. Department of Education’s Committee of Measures of Student Success. In response to the committee’s report, the department announced in April that required graduation-rate reporting will be broadened to include part-time and other students who have previously attended postsecondary education and it promised to look into other measures.
“While statistics based on a more comprehensive analysis is a step in the right direction, it is certainly not our primary goal,” Jordan says.
Strategies for success
Under Jordan, 85 new tenured and tenure-track faculty positions have been added since fiscal year 2004-05. The number of credit hours taught by faculty members who fall in these categories has increased as well. Having tenured and tenure-track faculty teach lower-level courses is a known strategy for improving student retention.
The HSI initiative has spun off several reforms. One HSI-inspired policy requires students to declare a major within 45 credit hours. “That helps students get on target so they’re not just taking a whole lot of credits that aren’t going to help them in the end,” says Judi Diaz Bonacquisti, associate vice president for enrollment management.
In the same vein is a requirement that students with low ACT scores take the Accuplacer exam before meeting with an academic adviser. That helps the adviser direct the student to appropriate courses, improving chances for success, she says.
A new coaching and advising effort is based, in part, on data from the higher education consulting firm of Noel-Levitz, which identified factors that suggest success as well as risk factors that can derail a student’s journey from freshman to sophomore.
A new Success Coaching campaign is aimed at more than 700 first-time students most likely to benefit from targeted intervention. It launched last Thursday with a personal email to each student from Randy Hyman, associate vice president for student success, saying a staff or faculty member would be in touch to see how they are doing.
“We know that…one of the most powerful retention tools is the personal contact from a staff member or faculty member,” Hyman says. “The overall objective is to make sure they are doing what they need to do to stay in good academic standing and that they register for spring semester classes so they are persisting on the trail toward graduation.”
The 2012-17 strategic plan includes a full menu of strategies to support student success. One objective is to develop and implement a strategic enrollment plan that includes intentional outreach and adapts research-based retention and graduation best practices.
“We’re looking at some of the basic infrastructure needs to support some of the ideas that essentially boil down to how we are intentionally recruiting, retaining and graduating students,” Diaz Bonacquisti says.
She acknowledges that promoting success is a challenge, that there are no “cookie-cutter” approaches. “We have to realize our students are human with a lot of competing priorities,” Diaz Bonacquisti says. “We need to find programs and support systems that work for the students that we have on this campus and to communicate so they know they’re available to them.”
Adds Jordan, “Implicit in our mission is the tenet that we will strive to do all that we can to see our students graduate, whether it’s in four, six or 10 years.”
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