Finding a niche, a sense of belonging
in freshman year called key to retention
By Tonnie Dixon
May 9, 2008 | Chelsea Parker was like most freshmen
when she started college: excited, nervous and hopeful
for what was to come. She applied to Dixie State College
with a friend and began her first semester in the fall
of 2005, after high school.
Parker ended up going alone after her friend bailed
to attend Southern Utah University three months prior
to the beginning of the semester. Hardly attending classes,
working 35 hours a week and being six hours away from
her home and family, was the way Parker was spending
her first year of college.
Not sure of what she wanted to do, Parker began the
interior design program but became bored with classes
because it was the same things she had learned in high
school and she said felt the advisers didn't take much
interest in her chosen major and didn't spend adequate
time helping her.
"I didn't really feel like I was learning anything
because everything was just kind of a shuffle game,"
Parker said. "Nobody was willing to sit down. And it
was just kind of hard because everyone was like, ‘Oh,
you're an interior design major? We've got more important
things to do.'"
After spending two years at Dixie State, Parker decided
college wasn't for her.
Noelle Call, director of USU's Retention and First
Year Experience, said, "One of the biggest things
with student success is not only the academic preparation
but that the student finds at the university that they
feel that they matter; that they belong; that they have
found a niche. If they don't find that niche, even if
they're doing well academically, (their grades are fine)
quite often they'll leave if they have no commitment,
no connection to the University.
Parker said if she would have found a niche she would
have had a better experience.
"In interior design, if I wouldn't have been so bored
and found a little more direction in it by an adviser
saying, ‘If you take these classes, you'll be done in
this amount of time.' I think if would have been able
to do something that interests me and stop doing the
redundant stuff that I had already done, I definitely
would have stayed with it."
Call said, surveys on students who leave college often
say they just didn't feel like they belonged there.
And sometimes it is not an academic issue; it just isn't
a good fit.
"If a student came here looking for Oceanography,
it's not a good fit here at Utah State for Oceanography.
But sometimes they just didn't get connected and the
research backs it up over and over again," Call said.
"That one person can make a difference, one faculty
member. Campus jobs are also really good retention efforts
because quite often they get connected to an office."
Call said USU has many LDS missionaries who leave
the university for two years and quite often come back
and finish their education.
"They quite often attend this first year and then
they leave. So we do an adjusted rate when we calculate
retention numbers," Call said. "They take the missionary
numbers out because we keep track of who leaves and
then they are put back in when they return. If we didn't
take them out, then our retention rate is considerably
In April 2008, USU's retention rate was 73 percent
compared to the national average of 86 percent.
Reasons for why students leave is never a sure thing,
"Well, of course there is the missionary phenomenon,
but we try and find out why students don't come back
and the number one that they indicate over repeatedly
is financial. After that, it's family problems. The
one that they don't report but we sometimes worry about
is that they weren't academically prepared. There was
some research that shows that students will respond
that financial is why they left but that's because that's
[socially] ok to say it's financial, it's not [socially]
ok to say it was too hard. On surveys, you'll see finance
is the number one reason why they leave and then after
that family issues," Call said.
Research also shows that just showing up to class
is a big part of the grade, Call said.
Parker said that was her problem.
"My first year I skipped a lot. I think it was honestly
because I went right after high school and I went so
far away from home. I think if I would have stayed closer,
I would have been able to get the help I needed. I was
so young," Parker said.
Retention is also a national concern. The number of
students who start college to the number of students
who actually graduate from college are significantly
lower. It is a real concern, Call said. Sometimes students
don't say in school because of the economy. If jobs
are available they don't stay. When jobs aren't available,
they look for more education.
One major issue with losing students is every time
retention goes down, the university loses funding from
the State, Call said.
"There is information out there; dollars and cents
that you could put on a student's head, that's not really
how we like to talk but the reality is when we lose
a student, we lose funding," Call said.
Funding not only pays many salaries on campus but
its operating money for projects for students.
"So everybody should really value if students stay
or not," Call said. "Understanding, that some students
should not be staying; it's not their time in life to
be doing this right now. So we help them find other
options where they can be successful right now."
USU's efforts in retaining students are involving
incoming freshmen in programs such as SOAR (Student
Orientation, Advising and Registration) and Connections.
SOAR is a mandatory program, unless one lives more than
400 miles away from campus, that helps new students
register for classes, tour the campus and ask questions
about the university. Connections is a voluntary class
that starts a week before the semesters begins to help
students once again learn their way around campus and
easing their way into the college setting.
The Retention and First Year Experience's website
states, "Retention is defined as everything the institution
undertakes to improve the quality of student life and
learning for its students."