Published March 15, 2013
The More the Merrier
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RIT's efforts to keep students here.

“It’s almost inevitable that a point will come in your four or five years where you say, ‘Gosh, maybe I should transfer,’” says Vice President for Strategic Planning and Special Initiatives Kit Mayberry. “And some students do. But I would say the majority don’t.” RIT’s freshmen retention rate provides some evidence; 89 percent of the students who entered RIT in 2011 stayed for a second year something of a record for RIT. RIT’s freshmen retention rate has been steadily climbing for at least five years. Since 2007, it has increased by 4.5 percent.

This climb in retention rate is no accident. It is the result of a major effort to improve the graduation and freshmen retention rates by the Student Success Steering Committee (SSSC).


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Jon Lavalley

Student Success Steering Committee

Soon after President Destler and Provost Jeremy Haefner arrived at RIT in 2007 and 2008 respectively, they decided that something needed to be done about student retention. “[They] had identified student success as one of the key priorities for the University,” explains Senior Associate Provost Christine Licota, “[They] wanted to be sure that we had a student success agenda that would support the goals we had for student retention and graduation.” The goals were a 92 percent first year retention rate and a 73 percent six-year graduation rate by 2012.

In the fall of 2008, Haefner formed two Student Success Tiger Teams; both teams focused on coming up with a plan to improve student retention. One of these teams focused exclusively on African American, Latin American, and Native American (AALANA) students. “The Tiger Team was looking at the literature and research around student success, looking at what we were doing at that time and looking at our strengths and gaps in an attempt to better understand why students leave and to ultimately improve our graduation rate,” explained Assistant Vice President of Institutional Research and Policy Studies Joan Graham, former Tiger Team member.

Now Graham is a member of the SSSC; a committee that resulted from the combination of the two Tiger teams in the fall of 2011. “The Student Success Steering Committee [is] less focused on the research and literature view because that has been done,” explains Graham. Instead, the new team focuses more on implementing plans to help improve the freshman retention and graduation rates.

Licota is now the chair of this committee which is made up of representatives from divisions at RIT that are most involved with students: Academic Affairs, Finance and Administration, Diversity, Student Affairs and Enrollment Management.

Despite having a student representative in the 2009 Tiger Team, the committee does not currently have any student representatives. Instead, they try to take student input into account through surveys of the student population. These surveys include the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which is filled out by freshman and seniors in the spring of every other year, and the Noel Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI), which goes out to all students every year.

In addition to gathering information on student opinion and engagement in the school, the committee gathers information on which students are most likely to leave RIT. They hope that they can use this information to help keep these students engaged and address their needs. “When you look at a freshman cohort of over 2,000 students, trying to find just that 10 percent or so that don’t come back can be kind of challenging,” says Graham, who also plays a major role in the data gathering and processing done by the SSSC. Once certain factors can be linked to students who choose not to re-enroll, the SSSC starts making plans for how to change these patterns.


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Jon Lavalley

Why Students Leave

In 2009, Mayberry and Associate of the University Rebecca Johnson started conducting phone interviews with students that had chosen to leave RIT. Since then, Mayberry has continued the interviews annually, reaching between 73 and 79 students each year. Only students with a cumulative GPA of at least 2.2 are included.

In the interviews, students are asked two questions: why they did not return to RIT and if there was anything that RIT could have done to keep the student at the school. “There hasn’t been a huge change over time in the three years we’ve done this,” explained Mayberry.

Dissatisfaction with the majors at RIT is a consistently high contributor to students leaving. However, the number of students who left RIT for financial reasons is one of the few categories that has noticeably decreased. “We did the first study in the fall of 2009 which was right after the recession hit and I think that students were feeling the pain financial aid wasn’t able to turn on the dime and offer additional aid to these students,” Mayberry elaborated.

Justin Mulvaney, former RIT Biochemistry major, transferred to Binghamton University (BU) for similar reasons to the students surveyed. After attending RIT, he realized that he was more interested in liberal arts than biochemistry and did not want to continue paying RIT’s tuition for a degree that the school is not well known for. He also wanted more opportunities to engage in the music scene, which he believes to be nonexistent at RIT.

Mulvaney stated that at the beginning of the year it was easy to make the decision to transfer but his final few weeks at RIT involved some second-guessing. “I miss that great group of friends that I made,” he said. Upon arriving at BU, it was more difficult to make new friends then it had been the year before because most upperclassmen lack “that same excitement to meet new people.” But within two weeks he had started a band that led to greater musical opportunities and friendships.

“I definitely made the right decision,” said Mulvaney. In addition to finding music, “I’m starting to figure out a direction here.” Now a third year Economic Analysis and Mathematics major, Mulvaney is still graduating on time, with a lot less debt.

There is not always something that RIT can do to influence a student’s decision, especially a student leaving for personal or health reasons. Of the students who took the survey, between 30.1 and 34 percent say there was nothing RIT could have done to convince them to stay. However, these students only make up a little more than one percent of students from their year. Still, over 30 percent of students do not graduate from each class and the SSSC is actively making an effort to decrease this number.


Efforts to Improve

The SSSC has suggested and implemented numerous changes across RIT and its many divisions based on the data collected. The Tiger Teams made a list of recommendations in 2009 and since then, “Almost all of them have been implemented,” states Licota.

One such recommendation was a modification of the orientation program. The program was shortened to five days and the orientation groups changed to include students from many different colleges instead of the college-specific groups assigned in past years. Another implemented recommendation was the addition of Pathways and Discovery classes required of every first year student.

Other Tiger Team recommendations included changes to the advising model such as requiring first year students to speak with their advisor before winter quarter registration. Although many students complain about this hold on their accounts, the rule was put in place to provide students with increased academic support.

To coincide with the Tiger Team recommendations, the SSSC has attempted to improve implementation of the Early Alert System and increase student access to opportunities for academic improvement. This involves providing programs at the Academic Support Center within Student Affairs including tutoring, supplemental instruction and the Writing Center.

The SSSC is also encouraging individual colleges to get involved by providing a more in-depth analysis of student survey data from the NSSE and SSI. “[The Institutional Research Office] takes the results from these surveys and breaks them down by college ... If a college sees that their score is lower than the bench mark in a particular area, they can do something about it,” says Licota. “The idea behind this recommendation was to find a way to make sure that the people who can do something about what the students are saying have the information at their fingertips.”

Most of the SSSC’s efforts have been aimed at first year students, since one main focus is the freshmen retention rate. The data seems to support that their efforts are having some effect: the first year students in 2011 had an 89 percent retention rate only three percent below their goal for 2012.

However, little effort has been made to retain students after their first year which is problematic due to differences in the freshman retention and graduation rates. Although 84.5 percent of freshman who entered RIT in 2007 stayed for the next quarter, only 52.1 percent graduated within five years. On average, about ten percent more students will graduate within six years but even so, the graduation rate is much lower than the freshmen retention rate.

“That’s not unlike universities; we are just seeing it here as well,” reassures Graham. Actually, RIT had a slightly higher graduation rate within six years than the national average in 2004. However, RIT still has lower rates than University of Rochester, one of the top-ranking colleges for freshmen retention rate with 96 percent first year retention in 2013.

Even with the efforts of the SSSC, some students continue to struggle academically, putting them at risk of suspension and of leaving the university. This is where the College Restoration Program (CRP) comes in. Program coordinator Dawn Herman describes the CRP as “a one term opportunity for students to get back on track.” The program accepts students referred by their academic department who’s GPAs are generally around a 2.0 or below. The students must apply to the program and upon acceptance, spend a quarter taking courses on topics such as time management and academic strategies.

“Our success rate is between 70 and 75 percent in terms of our students going back to an academic department after [the] CRP,” says Herman. However, even if a student does well in the CRP, they may still decide to leave RIT. “That’s a success story for me too because it makes sense for the student at that time,” Herman says. “It’s all about the student and what’s going to be best for the student.”


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Jon Lavalley

What the Team Plans to Tackle Next

Even though most of the SSSC goals have been met, the team continues to look into improving RIT’s freshman retention and graduation rates. In addition to improving retention rates after the second year, the team hopes to help close the gender gap in graduation rate. In 2005, 60 percent of male RIT students graduated within six years compared to 73 percent of female students.

“Among peer institutions, there’s a similar phenomenon going on. That, in our mind, doesn’t make it acceptable,” said Edward A. Lincoln, Assistant to the Senior Vice President and representative of the Admission and Financial Aid Division on the SSS. “We still want to drill down a little further. Maybe try some different things that might improve those gaps, close those gaps. But at least we’re learning that it’s not just something within RIT.”

Graham has also found data that suggests a strong correlation between students taking a leave of absence (LOA) and their eventual graduation; less than one in five freshmen on an LOA return and graduate. “That was a trigger for the committee to see what kind of students are taking these leaves of absence. Are there other factors that we can or cannot influence?” says Graham. “And what should we be looking at in terms of our LOA policy and procedures in an effort to make these students as successful as we can?”

“Now we’ve got a [proposed] new student leave of absence policy that’s going to be going before the governance groups this year,” explains Licota. “We really need to sit down and have a conversation with [the student] to really have an exit strategy if they are going to leave.” By helping students plan their LOA, the team hopes to also help the student plan their return to the university.

Progress in freshman retention rate has been made each year since the Tiger Team was founded and, as the freshmen from 2009 and beyond start to graduate, the committee will be able to see the effect it has had on graduation.

“Now there are some [former students] that are not as positive about their [RIT] experience,” Mayberry admits. But she has found that that is not how most students respond: “I have been surprised every year by how positive so many students are about RIT even thought they left I had not expected to hear that: ‘If there’s any way I could be back, I’d be back.’” With the SSSC’s help, RIT continues to search for ways to help students like these stay.

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