By Cliff Foster
Picture data about this fall’s first-time freshman distributed on a bell curve. On the lower end are students who probably won’t come back. On the upper end are motivated students who are likely to return. And in the middle are those who could go either way.
The middle-of-the-curve students, who often don’t appear on the radar until they start to fail, are the focus of an intense new coaching and advising effort to improve the odds they’ll be back next year. The goal is to increase the first-year retention rate for fall 2012 students 70 percent (it recently grew to 66 percent) and ultimately see more students graduate.
“It’s the difference to being proactive or reactive,” says Judi Diaz Bonacquisti, associate vice president for enrollment management. “The current system we have now is ‘Oh, you fell under a 2.0, let me reach out to you. What we’re trying to do is give students the information they need so they don’t fall under a 2.0. That’s the difference.”
The initiative is in keeping with the goals outlined in “A Time of Transformation,” MSU Denver’s 2012-17 strategic plan, and the University's Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Task Force recommendations. For example, the strategic plan calls for higher retention rates for first‑time, full-time freshman, full-time transfer students, and first-time, part-time students as well as improved graduation rates.
“We have set a goal to increase our 6-year graduation rate to 44 percent, based on rates of HSIs with similar incoming-student profiles but higher graduation rates,” Diaz Bonacquisti says. “The intentionality of our work is strictly for the benefit of our students. We want them to graduate, and successfully completing that first year is a critical first step.”
The initiative reflects ideas from a retreat of leaders from throughout the University and data from the higher education consulting firm of Noel-Levitz, which studied freshman and transfer students from 2007-10 who continued at MSU Denver the following year. The purpose was to identify the factors that suggest success as well as risk factors that can derail a student’s journey from freshman to sophomore.
This historical data was then applied against the characteristics of this fall’s first-time freshman and transfer students. Each received a score corresponding to their likelihood of staying or leaving. The students whose scores fell in the middle will now receive extra attention from the University.
And that’s a change from past practice, prompted by the necessity to leverage limited resources.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times we tend to focus on the students who are right at the verge of falling off the cliff or give so many resources to students who are doing great that we’re missing the students we could potentially have a significant impact on,” Diaz Bonacquisti says.
No longer. “Our goal is with classes starting on Monday to do some serious interventions with students who are in the middle of that bell curve,” she says. “While some departments on campus may have been doing this for a while, we are trying to take an intentional, cross-campus approach with our outreach.”
Some of those students will be assigned a counselor from the Academic Advising Center. Others will receive guidance from coaches from throughout the University to help them navigate the campus and plug into the services they need.
An incoming student with a mediocre high school grade point average, for example, might be pointed to the tutoring center or to the Writing Center for help. Or a student with a registration hold may be contacted and told how to get rid of it.
The idea, Diaz Bonacquisti says, is to ensure “they know about the resources that are available to them so they can use those resources before it’s too late.”
Right now, the focus is on first-time freshmen, Diaz Bonacquisti says. But the future goal will be to impact all new students, including new transfers. One idea involves including faculty members in the orientation program “so we can get them [transfer students] connected to their departments.”
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