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Low student-retention rates cause concern for administration

November 30, 2006

In his first semester at UW-River Falls, Provost Charlie Hurt said one of his main concerns for the campus is the current retention rates of first- and second-year students.

During the time Hurt has spent exploring the problem, he has come to one clear conclusion - retention rates are not a direct effect of one factor, but a combination of things.

“I think it is a lot of reasons,” Hurt said of low student retention rates. “There is no magic bullet - I wish there were. We would pay for it right here and now.”

While Hurt is without a “magic bullet,” he is armed with recent data that places retention of students in their second year of schooling at 70.6 percent.

According to UWRF Institutional Research, this statistic is nearly 10 percent lower than the target retention rate of 80 percent.

In plain English, this means the University is only keeping 70 percent of freshmen and sophomores, while the goal is set at 80 percent. 

Though closing the gap is a goal for Hurt, he is aware that retention rates hold both UWRF and its students accountable.

In the case of first- and second-year undergraduates, responsibility is key, as Hurt said some students may find they are “not quite ready” for college.

“Some come here a little earlier than they should,” he said. “If you miss class, no one will come and grab you. It is a cultural change.”

Though Laura Merrifield has had plenty of practice at college life as a UWRF senior, the 22-year-old almost left the UWRF to try something new.

“I am not really sure why,” Merrifield said about thinking of transferring. “I thought I would like a change of scenery.”

Despite being “too lazy” to switch universities, Merrifield is happy she stayed at UWRF.

“I started here, and I like the fact that it is small and has what I want,” she said.

With Merrifield in the final chapter of her undergraduate career, three Hathorn Hall residents and floor-mates have gone on their own college experience.

Shannon Banaszewski, Rachael Schlossin and Ashley Wilde said they all agree their first semester at UWRF is going well.

“It was a little overwhelming at first,” Schlossin said. “Our hall has been good at getting together and meeting new people.”

For Banaszewski, her initial impression of UWRF through the Week of Welcome (WOW) is one that has stuck with her.

“Everyone in our WOW group is still friends,” she said. “It was nice getting to know people.”

Activities like WOW are a good sign for Hurt, who said a priority for him is ensuring UWRF is “good for price and good for service.”

While the University has areas Hurt said are on the right track, an area that is being worked on is advising. To combat this problem, Hurt said he first looked at advising from a student’s perspective.

“I try to walk around and trace steps,” he said. “The number of steps that a student has to go through makes sense if I look at them. They don’t make good sense if a student looks at them.”

After looking at the advising process through a student’s eyes, Hurt said he has made recommendations to faculty about improvements.

“I have to be careful and deliberate because advising is almost always seen as a faculty responsibility,” he said. “What I can’t do is become too involved in the issue.”

The provost said his participation with advising must be limited because he doesn’t want to overstep his boundaries among faculty members who spend a bulk of their time with their advisees.

“I need to make sure my office is not taking something away from faculty,” Hurt said.

As dean for student development and campus diversity, Blake Fry said he is aware of the advising issue and is one of many people working on a solution.

“This past spring, our first-year students and seniors participated in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE),” Fry said. “Through this survey, our first-year students indicated they were less satisfied with academic advising than first-year students at other UW-System institutions.”

With the survey results being less than favorable, Fry has an initial plan to combat the issue.

“While I could speculate as to the reasons based on other NSSE indicators, the more responsible path is for us to develop a system for assessing the quality of our academic advising,” he said.

Though Hurt does not directly dive into fixing advising qualms, his general outlook seems to support efforts like Fry’s.

“Anything I can do to reduce institutional issues, the better,” Hurt said.

Under the umbrella of “anything,” Hurt has two things he said he hopes to accomplish in the “next two years, if not sooner.”

The first of Hurt’s duo is “an advising process that faculty and students all understand that is transparent and clear,” he said.

“The other thing I would hope we see are fewer students leaving for the wrong reasons,” Hurt said. “Being homesick is something we can’t fix.”

While he said he is not sure of a cure for missing home, Hurt has one idea of how to close the retention gap.

“Advising is not where I want it to be,” he said. “It will take some time and effort to fix it.”

One area UWRF is using to increase retention rates is the First Year Experience (FYE).

During the program’s first year, Co-Director Miriam Huffman said FYE is working to set a foundation where students can get the help they need.

“We are behind the scenes in the first year,” Huffman said.

A project FYE is working on is looking into a group of 250 freshmen who have not registered for spring semester.

“There are two pools of people,” Huffman said. “For those who are not doing well, we want to help them. For those who are leaving, we want to know what went wrong.”

Through the work of FYE, Huffman said she is hoping to enhance the experience of students by providing an outlet where the program can ask students, “How can we help you be successful?”

With UWRF working to increase retention rates, River Falls Mayor Don Richards said he is hoping to continue a longstanding tradition between the University and the community.

“The city benefits from the youth and diversity of the student body,” Richards said.

In addition to the economic benefit of UWRF students, Richards said the University adds to the character of the city.

“Without the U, River Falls would just be another ordinary burg in West Central Wisconsin,” he said. “With the U, I think we are something special.”

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