There aren’t many things more exciting than move-in day on a college campus. Students bursting with anticipation of their newly independent lives and parents beaming with pride and visions of graduation day, temporarily blurred by tears. Nothing but green lights and endless possibilities. Somehow the hard reality of how difficult this transition can be during the first year gets lost in those magical moments.
Retaining students at a college or university has become just as important as recruitment of new students. Immaculata University has risen to the challenge and recently earned the top spot in student retention according to Eduventures 2016 Student Success Ratings (in the private, doctoral/research institutional categorization using data from 2005-2015). Retention for full-time undergraduate, traditional-age students was 84 percent, above the national average.
However, it wasn’t always this way.
Immaculata increased enrollment dramatically in 2005 when the University adopted a co-educational admission policy. While the influx was welcome, the law of unintended consequences prevailed and retention began to suffer when services could not keep pace with the number of students. When retention dropped to 68 percent from 2004-2008, Immaculata’s leaders immediately shifted into recovery mode to address the issues.
Understanding that current students are different from previous generations, Sister Carroll Isselmann, IHM, Ed.D., states that we need to “meet them where they are.”
Securing a Department of Education Title III Grant in 2011, worth $1.9 million over a five-year span, enabled Immaculata University to implement strategies geared toward student success and retention. Immaculata established the Pathways to Success Center that integrated several key student support services into one centralized unit to share information, communication, resources and leadership. The Pathways to Success Center housed the Office of Career and Professional Development, Office of Academic Advising and the Office of Academic Support, enhanced by an increase in professional staff. To help students understand the connection between their academic efforts and future careers, freshmen meet with a member of the academic advising staff to create a career and academic success plan.
“We were asking students, what’s your pathway? where do you want to go? and then working with the student towards that goal,” says Sister Carroll Isselmann, who co-wrote the proposal to secure the Title III grant. She explains that instead of the students coming in, choosing a major and following a course sequence sheet, like most schools did at that time, Immaculata needed to change the culture regarding advisement.
One key ingredient that helped foster the integration between career and academic goals was providing faculty members with professional development opportunities that enhanced university-wide support of student retention. Faculty, who previously had been one of the primary career advisors for students, were appreciative for the additional professional advisement that their students were receiving and recognized the potential this service delivered in helping students complete their educational goals.
With the help of Sister Joseph Marie Carter, IHM, Ed.D., executive director of Academic Success and Advising, there was a concerted effort to increase the number of students declaring a major by the end of their freshmen year. Research proves that early career determination increases a student’s chance to remain on track to graduate.
With the implementation of two academic technology applications, StarFish and Degree Works, faculty and students can communicate about progress and goals in a way that is convenient and efficient. Star Fish is an early alert system that faculty utilize to help students who may be falling behind; Degree Works allows students to monitor their own academic progression and explore “what if” scenarios for making changes to one’s major. Courtney James ’18, who was originally a music therapy major, switched to Communication during her junior year.
“Degree Works was a huge help in the process because I made the decision on a Wednesday night and by Thursday afternoon I was officially a Communication major. I was able to determine my next steps without having to meet with someone.” This, coupled with the expertise of a “live” department chair advisor, gave James the confidence that she would still be on track to graduate.
Among the numerous highlights of the Title III grant was the increased collaboration between the Athletic Department and faculty members. The outcome of this collaboration is extremely high retention rates for athletes: averaging 94% for the 2016-2017 class, including 100% retention for six sports teams.
“I am happy to announce that the efforts to retain student-athletes have been extremely successful,” states Patricia Canterino, vice president for Student Development and Engagement. “As a very important component of the campus community, our athletes are dedicated students, classmates and members of their community. We are pleased that they have shared their many talents with Immaculata University.”
In addition to academic initiatives that bolstered retention, efforts of the Student Development and Engagement Office were instrumental in increasing student retention. Understanding that many of Immaculata’s students were first-generation, commuter students, many of whom transferred to Immaculata, the staff created specialized programming and activities that helped these students feel connected to the campus. One creative vehicle that helped bridge the connectivity of sophomore students to the campus community was the development of the Sophomore Year Experience that culminated in a weekend retreat.
One benefit of a smaller campus is the ability to ascend to leadership positions. James notes that a significant part of her decision to stay at Immaculata was the opportunity to participate in student leadership roles on campus. “I love being a student-leader more than anything. Having the opportunity to organize and collaborate on events, creating connections with various offices throughout campus, makes me feel like I have the ability to leave my own legacy.”
After a decade of planning and five years of implementing strategies to increase student retention, Immaculata is proud of its #1 ranking. The goal now is to sustain the improvement.
“Title III was not just an office,” states Sister Ann Heath, IHM, Ph.D., who oversaw the grant. “It was a campus-wide, community-based project with major leadership provided by the Pathways team but extending through all of our enrichment activities, learning communities, programming, software, communication tools, data analysis and the staffing and participation by students, faculty, and staff.”