Prudence and Persistence

Strategies Boost Student Retention Despite Pandemic Challenges

By Amanda O’Rourke
Fall Winter 2021 Issue

During the summer after her first year at Susquehanna, Alaina Uricheck ’24 began to consider transferring to a different college. After being placed in quarantine a few times because of Covid-19 health and safety protocols, she decided to return to her home in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, to study remotely. What she felt was lacking was a strong connection drawing her back to campus.

My first experience on campus felt traumatizing with all the spontaneous quarantines,” Uricheck, a communications major with a minor in biology, admits now. “I just wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to return to.”

Historically — including prior to the pains of Covid-19 — the retention of first-year students has been a struggle for most colleges and universities. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s 2020 Persistence and Retention Report, the overall rate at which first-year college students persist, or continue to their second year, dropped 2 percentage points to 73.9% for fall 2019, its lowest level since 2012.

Why students leave can be for a variety of reasons. A 2006 report to the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative found that “of the 45% of students who start college and fail to complete their degree, less than one-quarter are dismissed for poor academic performance. Most leave for other reasons” – ranging from being cut from a sports team to a change in family finances to personal issues either on campus or at home.

At Susquehanna, efforts to help students persist from year to year and graduate have focused on the whole of who students are and what they need – from their academics to their social lives to their experience prior to arriving on campus. Recent data indicates that these efforts are paying off. Fall 2020 retention stood at 88.4% — its rate highest since 2003 when it stood at 89.8%. Rates fluctuated over the coming years, eventually dropping to 82.9% in 2013.

Susquehanna’s fall 2021 retention rate is down just slightly at 87.3%, but is still up 4.4 percentage points from the 2013 low and ahead of the university’s three-year retention average of 86.4% — all of which has been achieved with a global pandemic as the backdrop.

“For us to be beating our three-year retention average at this time is a pretty phenomenal feat,” says Provost Dave Ramsaran. “This is a collective effort by everyone who has been so focused on student success, not just the faculty but also staff across campus. That has been the real cultural shift, understanding that the most important thing we all do is to make sure our students succeed, and we all have a role to play.”

“In recognizing our collective commitment to the success of our students and in supporting them through Commencement Day, we have achieved impressive retention rates despite facing unprecedented challenges,” President Jonathan Green says. “This is the story of a campus community that faced challenges head-on and not only met them but excelled despite them.”

Social and Academic Support Key to Success

Targeted academic and social programming, from expanded mentoring and inclusive teaching techniques to “intrusive advising” and specialized first-year orientations, have been supported by a campus-wide commitment to retaining Susquehanna’s students through graduation.

At Susquehanna, retention efforts begin before students arrive on campus. After enrolling, students are assigned a faculty mentor to begin early advising, specifically working with incoming students to schedule first semester classes and establishing a link with the faculty, Ramsaran says.

“It helps incoming students think through what their first semester will look like,” he says. “In the past when students got their schedule, they couldn’t change or discuss it until they arrived on campus. Now they can engage with their advisor from the beginning of the process.”

And to help with the social transition to college life, incoming students can participate in a voluntary mentor program and be matched with a junior or senior. They can email, call or text their mentor to ask questions about academic and campus life through the summer and their first semester.

“This connects the student with someone who has experience on campus,” says Francy Magee, vice president for student life and dean of students. “It also gives them some social capital because now they know someone who can help them navigate these spaces and become part of the social life at Susquehanna.”

The first two weeks of classes are understood to be the most crucial for retention. As such, the call was made to the entire campus community to be especially alert during this time, Ramsaran says, to identify any potential red flags that could adversely affect a student’s success at Susquehanna.

Faculty have been asked to report every student absence via EAB (Education Advisory Board) Navigate, an integrated campus-wide advising system used by both faculty and students.

“We know that if a student struggles within their first two weeks on campus, they are likely to struggle for a long time,” Ramsaran says. “If we see a student missing three classes, we know there is something more going on and we proactively reach out to those students.”

Faculty have also been asked to assign a low-stakes assignment within the first two weeks of classes — something students are likely to complete without much difficulty — to give them the boost they may need to realize that they can succeed at college.

“We believe that every student we enroll at Susquehanna has what it takes to succeed here, but we realize that each has their own strengths and weaknesses,” Ramsaran says. “If we become flexible and work with the student as an individual, we increase the chances of success and give the student the academic efficacy they may need to move forward.”

Differential scheduling considers what a student’s incoming academic strengths are when selecting their courses. For example, courses in modern languages and mathematics, namely statistics, can be difficult for many students. Previous scheduling models have placed students into these courses early on in their academic careers. But differential scheduling allows for students to “get their feet under them” before taking on those more challenging courses that, if unsuccessful, could lead them to lose confidence and not return. Instead, these courses are delayed as late as a student’s third semester.

Retention Gains in the Sigmund Weis School of Business

Beginning in fall 2018, faculty in the Sigmund Weis School of Business began experimenting with several initiatives to improve retention rates and, with them, four-year graduation rates. To faculty members, nothing is more central to the mission of the university.

“If we could only do one thing, you could argue it is to make sure students graduate,” Dean Matthew Rousu says, “because a college degree is crucial to changing the trajectory of a young person’s life.”

The Department of Economics took the unique approach of having all faculty collaborate on an inclusive teaching initiative across all sections of an introductory class. Inclusive teaching incorporates practices to support accessible learning for all students. Academic standards remain the same but experimenting with these new methods helps to reach all types of learners at different levels of readiness.

“The higher education model assumes that we just pour more onto a high school education foundation, but the unevenness of that experience means students don’t all start at the same place,” Ramsaran says. “The curriculum needs to allow students to start at different places and end up at the same place.”

To implement inclusive teaching, the business school introduced among its first-year economics students:

  • Mandatory tutoring. Students in introductory economics classes are required to attend tutoring once a week, as research has shown that tutoring not only has the obvious benefit of establishing academic support, but group tutoring also promotes social interaction and builds the confidence of shy students. Students may opt out of the program once they have achieved a B average.
  • In-class inclusive activities and games. Activities and games in the classroom can help reach learners of different styles.
  • Consistent feedback and low-stakes assignments. Not all students start at the same place. Feedback sets and maintains expectations for student performance while low-stakes assignments help to establish efficacy.

Other initiatives included improving advising and teaching. The business school faculty spent time trying to learn more about today’s students – both in general and about students from diverse backgrounds. This included a reading discussion group of Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, by Claude M. Steele, which highlighted how students from different backgrounds learn differently and have different approaches to asking for help. The faculty also read and discussed The Years that Matter Most, by Paul Tough, which highlights the challenges faced by students from lower income households.

Their efforts resulted in lower attrition rates among business school students, decreasing from 18.7% in 2018-19 to 6.8% in 2019-20.

“We approached our efforts from a variety of angles, and all seemed to work,” Rousu says. “We’ve seen encouraging growth and look forward to duplicating efforts across the business school.”

Successes with Students from Low-income Households

In 2019, Susquehanna joined the American Talent Initiative, an alliance of more than 100 colleges and universities with the goal of substantially expanding the number of talented students from low- and moderate-income households at America’s undergraduate institutions with the highest graduation rates. The goal set forth at that time was to enroll 50,000 students across the country by 2025.

Susquehanna is one of only about a quarter of the colleges in the consortium to meet its commitment. Since fall 2015, the number of students eligible for the federal Pell grant (which is designed to assist students from low-income households) has remained higher than 25%, an above-average share amongst other private, high-graduation rate institutions. Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, the university increased Pell enrollment by 27 students, despite overall enrollment challenges due to Covid-19.

“Susquehanna’s history of providing a transformative, world-class education to meritorious students with modest financial resources is a point of pride for me and remains one of our most important aspirations,” Green says. “We are committed to supporting these students academically, socially and financially, from before they arrive on campus to graduation and beyond.”

In addition to maintaining steady growth in its Pell enrollment, Susquehanna has committed to eliminating graduation gaps among its Pell students. To achieve this goal, Susquehanna has joined a new program to expand the suite of resources it provides to students from lower-income backgrounds. The $1.3 million U.S. Department of Education TRiO Student Support Services grant will be implemented through 2025 and will allow the university to expand academic tutoring services for eligible students, plan workshops designed to promote healthy financial behaviors, implement graduate school counseling and a telementoring program with SU alumni, and the pre-orientation program for first-year students.

Efforts appear to be showing results. First-year retention of Pell recipient students has risen steadily since 2016, from 81% to 87.6% in 2020.

Smoothing the Path To Return

Susquehanna’s commitment to helping a student persist through graduation extends to those who are no longer enrolled. Created in 2018, Project Completion assists students who have chosen to withdraw or take a leave of absence to return to campus to complete their degree.

“The university felt we were missing an opportunity to gain back students who ‘stopped out,’” says Ryan Redfern ’11, transitions and completions coordinator in the Center for Academic Success. “Project Completion brought several university partners together to smooth reenrollment processes for these students.”

In his role, Redfern reaches out to students who plan to leave the university and explains the process. He then stays in touch with them and helps those who want to return navigate that process. Redfern also collaborates with coaches or academic advisors who may be able to influence the student’s decision to return.

As noted earlier, a student’s decision to withdraw is rarely due to academic reasons. Redfern works in collaboration with Student Financial Services, the Registrar, Residence Life and Student Life to address the many reasons a student may choose to leave. When the committee first organized, on average 16-24 students return on a yearly basis. The pandemic required Redfern to more than double his efforts – with great success.

“In my three years at SU, we have seen a 120% increase in returnees, averaging 44 students a year,” Redfern says. “It’s extremely satisfying to help these students work through whatever obstacle might be in their way to bring them back to campus to complete their degrees.”

Like the many reasons a student might withdraw, the reasons a student stays are just as varied. Uricheck ultimately decided to return to SU this fall for her second year.

“I returned to Susquehanna for the same reasons I enrolled initially. SU has the largest student-run radio station, a fantastic communications department and a plethora of study abroad programs,” she says. “These opportunities were a huge draw to me when I was looking at colleges, and no other colleges have comparable options.”

Return to top
View this full issue Return to Fall Winter 2021 Issue