University to participate in student retention conference

By Kevin Graham

Student retention will be discussed by representatives of each of the state’s 15 universities as they come to Oakland University to participate in a two-day conference called “Completing College: What It Takes… What’s at Stake.”

The event is slated for March 14 and 15 of next year at The Auburn Hills Marriott Pontiac Hotel at Centerpoint.

Vincent Tinto, distinguished University of Syracuse professor, will be the keynote speaker of the event. Tinto is a leading researcher on retention issues in higher education.

“He’s (Tinto) done some of the foreground work in understanding what leads to students’ departure,” said Scott Crabill, interim vice provost for undergraduate education. “He’s also looked at what schools do to keep students at the university. He’s advocated an integrated academic, student life focus that really focuses upon student engagement and not just within the classroom but within the college experience.”


The problem

According to OU’s most recent six-year graduation rate, excluding transfer students, only 43 percent of full-time students complete their undergraduate degree within six years.

The university’s retention figures show the school loses anywhere between 26 and 30 percent of a class after their freshman year.

Oakland officials would like to improve both of these numbers, according to Crabill.

Laura Schartman, director of the office of institutional research and assessment, put the numbers into context.

“If we look at other Michigan public universities, OU is in the low/middle range, while compared to other schools in the Carnegie doctoral/research classification, OU is a bit higher,” she said.

Schartman said it is important to compare the university to other similar campuses rather than bigger campuses with large residential populations.

She also said OU’s graduation rate is trending upward. The rate for the 2005 class was 40.3 percent, while the class in 2004 checked in at 39.7 percent.

Crabill said his hope is to have graduation rates increase by 10 percent within four years.


Retention efforts

According to Crabill, the university has had a standing committee on retention for two years.

The committee has started following recent presentations to OU Student Congress.

University-backed initiatives to help with retention efforts include the First Year Advising Center and the “Celebrate 28” campaign, which is a push for students to reach sophomore status.

Sara Webb, director of the First Year Advising Center, said the center helps freshmen stay on track.

“What we’re able to do in the office is assign every freshman to a specific adviser who works with him throughout their first year to decide on their best fit major and create a plan after their first year for how they’re going to be successful,” she said.

Webb said assigning each freshman and sophomore who hasn’t yet selected a major an adviser presents advantages.

“What we’ve been able to do is do some specific outreach when students hit roadblocks that we’re aware of as a university,” she said.

She said they could work with the students who have received unsatisfactory grades — which is less than a 2.0 — at the mid-semester mark to diagnose any issues and get them back on track.


Piecing it together 

Crabill said there is no quick fix for this issue.

“These tend to be numbers that there’s no magic dust that you can sprinkle over our campus and all of a sudden things get miraculously better,” he said. “It tends to be a more complicated, multidimensional task that requires people from across the university doing various things.”

Crabill said the goal of the event is for representatives to learn what has worked at other universities.

Whatever the answer is, Crabill thinks it will involve multiple angles.

“Students feeling connected to the university is an important piece of that puzzle, feeling engaged in the classroom is another piece of that puzzle, involvement in student life is another piece of that puzzle (and) finding ways to make the university an exciting place to be … an academic venture that students get excited about,” he said.