Paying Attention to Retention

BY BRENDAN CRONIN // DEC. 5, 2011 //

It is no real secret to Curry students that the college’s retention rate is quite low. Each year, freshmen routinely lose friends who simply do not return for their second year.

It’s a problem that has the attention of administers and faculty, in no small part because the numbers are getting some attention among prospective students. A new law requires the online federal financial aid system to show applicants the retention, transfer and graduation rates of all schools they are applying to, for comparison’s sake. Curry’s retention rate among freshmen is approximately 64 percent, according to US News, which is quite a bit lower than many of the college’s competitors, said Keith Robichaud, director of admissions.

Among the areas the college is focusing on to improve retention is the First-Year Seminar program, which aims to help ease students’ transition to college. Carrie Cokely, an associate professor who heads the program, also serves on a college-wide committee called Strategic Enrollment Management.

Cokely said SEM is about better using data to evaluate prospective students, with an eye toward keeping them and seeing them through to graduation. The group has found that some students consider Curry a “placeholder” school. They enrolled with the full intention to transfer to a different college, for whatever reason, she said. Another problem is that no one at Curry seems to truly know why so many students fail to return for their second year.

“The college is looking to put into place a more formal exit interview,” Cokely said.

One obvious factor in Curry’s low retention rate is its high tuition and housing costs. Students interviewed for this story routinely noted the expense of attending the college. For the 2011-2012 school year, tuition is $32,210 and room and board is $12,000. Approximately 70 percent of students receive some form of need-based aid, according to the college, but the specific amount of aid is unique to each individual.

In addition to First-Year Seminar academic programming—which is currently not mandatory for freshmen—the college has been working to build better connections with students through the use of social media and interpersonal relationships. That includes closer relationships between freshmen and their academic advisors.

One piece of research the college found is that students who enter as an “undecided” major are less likely to stay, according to Interim Director of Academic Advising Vicki Nelson. The college wants students to feel “connected” with the Curry community from the very beginning. There’s now a Facebook page for “undecided” students, and peer advisors email incoming freshmen to develop greater bonds.

Several current freshmen said one of the biggest problems with Curry is the lack of good social activities on weekends. Too many students go off campus to look for fun, they said.

“There are less than 50 people on campus during weekends,” said freshman psychology major Kayla Carpenter. The actual number may not be that low, at least according to Dining Services, which reports serving far more dinners during a typical Saturday night.

Other freshmen voiced their displeasure with the lack of school spirit on campus. They say they routinely go to events, like football games, but few others attend.

While there’s no single solution to Curry’s retention problem, it’s clear that many people on campus at least know there is a problem. And that’s a good start.

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