One in four students do not return to the University of South Dakota every year on average, according to data by the university’s Institutional Research Department.
The report, released Feb. 4, also indicates approximately 1,250 first-time, full-time students registered for the fall 2012 semester, an increase of 139 students from the year before.
Of these students, 1,214 returned to USD for the spring 2013 semester, an overall retention rate of 91 percent, though this statistic is not a correct reflection of the entire school year student retention rate.
Reporting an average retention rate from fall-to-fall semesters around 75 percent, USD’s student retention is comparable to other regental schools in the state.
According to Provost Chuck Staben, fall-to-spring retention rates are not always an accurate indicator to what the fall-to-fall retention rates will be. In fact, he said the two retention rates can sometimes be misleading when trying to compare them to each other.
What is a retention rate and how is it measured?
Student retention rates reflect the amount of students returning to school on a semester-to-semester basis. As described by Staben, student retention rates are mainly collected in two ways.
“We look at retention of those students from fall-to-spring semester, and we look at them from fall-to-fall semesters,” Staben said. “We actually look at it for every year of students, but a lot of focus here at this university, and others, has been first-year student retention, which is typically monitored from fall-to-fall.”
Staben said the primary focus in closely monitoring first-year, full-time students is because it is the most critical transition period for students coming into college. Once students get into the higher years of education, retention will come more naturally.
Staben said fall-to-fall semester retention is often the most standard and important number of the two, as it has the most accuracy.
“For the last four or five years at USD, the fall-to-spring number has almost always been around the 90 percent area, while the retention for those years from fall-to-fall is varied from about 72 percent to 78 percent,” Staben said.
One reason fall-to-spring retention is unpredictable is because there are fewer students choosing not to return, and only taking into consideration that small amount of students would be deceptive when a much larger portion of students does not return after the spring semester, Staben said.
Increasing Student Retention
Maintaining a high retention rate can be important to a university, as it can indicate the success an average student will experience throughout their college years.
Staben said USD takes into consideration two main aspects of the college atmosphere when aiming to increase student retention, academic and social factors. By providing students with satisfactory academic and social options, Staben said the university can expect to retain more students.
“On the academic side of things, we try to place students in classes that are appropriate for them, and make sure they are run in a reasonably supportive fashion,” Staben said.
Because first-year, full-time students play such a pivotal role in determining the university’s retention rates, Staben said there has been a great deal of attention on improving remedial classes so many incoming first-years must enroll in.
Staben said a significant number of incoming first-year students are required to take some sort of math remediation, and one way the university has reduced this sometimes-daunting course load for students is by combining the lower level math classes.
“We think that shortening the path may help students, and this is showing to be true not just here, but at other universities as well,” Staben said. “Students who spend a lot of time in remediation tend to not get passed remedial classes very effectively.”
One of the most substantial changes the math department has undergone is restructuring of math emporium, a student achievement center designed to aid students in mastering their math objectives.
Dan Van Peursem, chair and associate professor of the math department, said the department has done a lot with the remedial and lower-level math courses to increase student success rates.
Other improvements include a more advanced tutor training program in order to make sure tutors are capable of providing assistance, an emporium director to oversee the program and revamping the course computer program.
“A combination of all four of these major changes has contributed to higher success rates,” Van Peursem said. “We’ll keep improving the program this spring to keep up the success rates.”
According to both Van Peursem and Staben, the fall 2012 semester saw the highest success rates for the math 102 course.
The second consideration the university pays close attention to maintain student enrollment is a healthy social environment. Staben said a consensus among student life administrators is ensuring a positive experience in the dorms, which nearly all first-year full-time students must reside in.
“Our staff works hard to make sure we have community assistance in the dorms,” Staben said. “It’s about making the transition from living at home and succeeding academically in high school to living here on campus and succeeding in a college atmosphere.”
Starfish, a new software program used by USD for the first time, could be a way to observe both of these factors in a convenient way.
“Spotting different influences that may affect a student’s overall performance, especially academically, Starfish is an retention tracking program that could really help us in a lot of different ways,” Staben said.
Along with the new program, Staben anticipates the usage of more in-depth surveys among students, particularly among the first-year, full-time students, because they are often more helpful than asking questions to students who have decided to no longer attend USD.
“Asking students questions about what they’re expecting in college and what they’re experiencing while they’re still here may be informative about what problems they are facing,” Staben said. “Trying to figure out why a student left after they’ve already left is not very effective.”
Aside from attending to the needs of first-year full-time students, Staben said a great deal of work has been done to help second and third-year students better succeed. He said one of the greatest areas of concern the university has been improving on is career advising.
“We’re trying to provide more career exploration and internship opportunities, as well as some of the curricula to make it fresher and more prevalent,” he said.
A Means to the Future
According to Staben, higher student retention rates directly translate to increased graduation rates. From what he has noticed about graduation, what used to take students four years to do is now taking five or six years.
“Unfortunately, most students don’t graduate within four years, but most have graduated by five, and most of the numbers plateau by the sixth year,” Staben said. If you’re a first-time, full-time student and you haven’t graduated in six years, the odds of you graduating are pretty low; but there are some.”
Breaking down retention rates further, Staben said the first year is all about retention, while all the subsequent years are about persistence. Between retention and persistence, retention is harder to uphold, Staben said.
“About 80-85 percent of students coming in are probably students who are capable of making the transition successfully,” Staben said. “Roughly speaking, we would hope that of that 80-85 percent, about 90 percent would continue here year to year.”