Posted on 08 December 2011.
Indiana Wesleyan University’s Marion-campus retention rate has dropped roughly 1 percent each year since 2006.
In 2006, the retention rate stood at 82.6 percent for first-time freshmen and 73 percent for first-time transfer students. Currently, the rate stands at 75.1 percent for first-time freshmen and 66 percent for first-time transfer students.
According to Dr. Brandon Hill, assistant dean of academic affairs, “retention” measures how many students, from one fall semester to the next, enroll their first year and come back for their second. This includes both first-time freshmen and transfer students.
Before 2006, IWU’s retention rate had been rising. Hill said his current position was created after the retention rate started going down and that part of his job is to explore why.
Hill said that a lagging economy could be one of many reasons for the decline.
“Retention was going up as the economy was going up,” said Hill. “And as the economy started going down, our retention started going down. I mean, you could almost see it follow that same curve.”
Hill said students have asked him why some schools have higher retention rates than IWU does. In response to this, Hill said each school has different acceptance requirements – such as Harvard University, for example.
According to Harvard’s website, most of its accepted students rank in the the top 10-15 percent of their high school graduating classes and the retention and graduation rates for its students are each around 98 percent. IWU’s six-year graduation rate is currently 69.5 percent, according to Tony Parandi, assistant director of institutional research at IWU.
But the three universities within 30 miles of IWU that are also members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities report freshman retention rates similar to IWU’s. Anderson University’s retention rate is 74.2 percent, while 75.2 percent of freshmen at Huntington University return for their sophomore year. Taylor University’s freshman retention rate is 86 percent, according to US News & World Report’s 2012 college rankings.
Hill said IWU is currently conducting studies to see if it should make financial aid adjustments, as the school did last year, to help more students return to class.
“I do know that the institution is spending millions of dollars covering aid loss from the state,” said Hill. “So, definitely, IWU is trying to do something about the financial picture.”
Dr. Don Sprowl, assistant provost for institutional research and accreditation, said the university doesn’t know why the rate is dropping.
“The trouble is, students commonly don’t want to tell the real reason,” Sprowl said. “Sometimes it is really economics. Sometimes it really is family/personal issues, but sometimes students just say that just because it’s an easy sort of answer, without going into the details.”
Hill also said some students may be less prepared for college than students before them.
“Some of that may be academic unpreparedness, but I believe there’s also a lot of life-skill unpreparedness, emotional health difficulties, that I think we’re seeing in greater numbers,” said Hill.
“But those are very hard things to measure, and we don’t have historical data on that,” added Hill, who said this is something the university is trying to prove and do something about.
Danielle Graham (fr) said she knows some IWU freshmen who are struggling with college, and some have decided to drop out.
“Mostly, the reason people are leaving that I’ve heard is just because they don’t like being away from home,” said Graham, who said she believes that this has to do with students relying on their parents more than they should.
“I don’t really have that much trouble being away from home,” said Graham. “I miss my family a lot, but I think my mom prepared [my brother] and me really well.”
Graham said that her mother taught her and her older brother how to take care of themselves and do things on their own, like calling the doctor’s office if they needed to schedule an appointment.
“We weren’t fully dependent on her,” said Graham.
Graham said she knows freshmen who are afraid to go places such as the Financial Aid Office and the Health Center to make appointments on their own.
One of the things Hill has been working on is Map-Works, an online assessment that seeks to help students improve academically by allowing them to evaluate their skills and habits. This assessment is sent to each IWU student’s email twice a semester, and it tracks each student’s progress as he or she assesses personal habits and receives suggestions for improvement.
“Not only does it allow us to help individuals, but it’ll give us a bigger picture so that we can create a better experience for students, or one that they are more likely to succeed in,” said Hill.
As student body president, Aaron Morrison (sr) had been working with the Academic Affairs Office on the Student Success Committee, which is made up of students, faculty and administrators who seek ways to help students succeed at IWU.
Hill chairs the committee, which has been working on developing a course to help students improve their academic skills, according to Morrison. Along with this, the committee is looking to reformat some of the preliminary courses on campus to better prepare students for college.
Morrison believes that there may also be other factors contributing to a decline in student retention, such as students’ sense of belonging at IWU.
“Unfortunately, I think that what happens in higher education, is we have this idea of student containment, and not student development,” said Morrison, who added he believes student containment comes from an atmosphere of simply going from class to class and living in nice residence halls.
Morrison said that if students have this outlook on college and don’t believe that they can do more than this – that they can have an impact on the world around them – they may feel disconnected from the university.
“If you find ways to cultivate more loyalty to a community, by telling people that, ‘You can contribute, that you can make a difference in your community,’ then people would be much more inclined to stay, even through economic trials,” said Morrison.
Sprowl said if students transfer to IWU, some of the issues they had from those schools may stay with them at in their new home. He also added that some people may no longer believe that going to college is beneficial or profitable for them.
“I think that sort of universal confidence has been questioned recently,” said Sprowl, who believes that this may be a factor that causes some students to drop out of college and go to work instead.
“School is not cheap,” said Hill. “Families have to make decisions, and I believe that a large factor in that decrease every year has been a worsening economy. If the economy starts to recover we may see some improvement there.”
Morrison said that “efforts are already under way” to help students who are struggling to stay in college. Hill said students should contact him with any questions or concerns related to the Student Success Committee.