After his freshman year of college in South Carolina, Ronald Torres cried the whole way back to Camden.
“I was like, man, I can’t believe this is happening to me,” the 20-year-old said.
After two semesters spent worrying about his ill grandmother, distracting him from studies, Torres had also lost some of his financial aid, leaving him unable to return to South Carolina State University after finishing freshman year in 2015.
“It’s not so straightforward as some people try to put it,” Torres said. Two weeks after he returned to Camden, Torres said, his grandmother had a heart attack. He decided to stay and take care of her.
With that decision, Torres became one of millions of freshmen across the country each year who do not return to their colleges as sophomores. Nationwide, about 1 in 4 freshmen at public colleges do not return to campus — a number that the schools hope to shrink.
Not all students leave college altogether, of course; many transfer to community colleges or to other four-year schools.
Torres said he hopes to eventually return to college, probably starting with classes at community college and finishing at a local four-year school.
Some students leave because they can’t pay anymore; others struggle with the coursework, the pace of classes, or the sudden freedom and flexibility.
“Many students have a difficult time adjusting to collegiate life,” said Harvey Kesselman, president of Stockton University.
“There needs to be support services,” he said. “You can be really strong in one aspect of your education and not as strong at another, but at the collegiate level they all count.”
Colleges have long had an array of student support services, including tutoring and academic advising. In recent years, those services have been expanded, driven in part by a growing emphasis on driving down student costs.
“Institutions are becoming much more proactive and trying to identify the students that are at risk of leaving,” said Michele O’Connor, associate vice provost for undergraduate studies at Temple University. “They’re reaching out to them and trying to get them to respond.”
In New Jersey, the three schools with the lowest 2014 to 2015 retention rates — Kean, New Jersey City, and William Paterson Universities — had about one in four freshmen not return as sophomores.
The retention rates at the 14 schools in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education ranged from 44.1 percent at Cheyney University to 87.9 percent at West Chester University. The system total was 78.1 percent.
“Even though we are proud of this number that we are talking about, we believe there is always room for improvement,” said Francis Atuahene, who heads student success programs at West Chester.
Atuahene attributed much of the university’s success to its Early Alert Program, which flags students who are struggling during the semester. Faculty members notify advisers and support staff, who reach out to students and offer tutoring, academic skills training, and other help as necessary.
This fall, West Chester is rolling out a program that identifies at-risk incoming freshmen and gives them workshops similar to the ones in its alert program: note-taking, study skills, time management.
“We’re going to make sure that we’re not going to wait until you have a problem,” Atuahene said. “We’re going to make sure we teach you the right things that you have to do so that you don’t have a problem.”
Part of the difficulty of raising retention rates is the interconnectedness of every part of the college experience, said Rory McElwee, Rowan University's associate vice president for student retention.
Rowan, which had a 2014-15 retention rate of 86.3 percent, has implemented a student information system that tracks academic progress and connects students, faculty, and advisers; increased its full-time professional advising staffing (it is adding five this summer to the current 29); and worked to link parts of the university so staff communicate more often.
“It’s pretty difficult to get significant jumps in retention overnight,” McElwee said, “but when you’re putting a number of different pieces in place, and you’re making those across the campus, and you’re making them based on data, that’s where we’ve been able to increase our rates.”
Careful use of data showed administrators at William Paterson University, which has a retention rate of 74.6 percent, that the biggest issue was financial, said Warren Sandmann, the provost.
If students can’t afford to be in college, then of course they don’t return. But even when students reported academic problems, Sandmann said, the underlying issue often turned out to be money.
“Our students do tend to work a lot, and if you’re working a lot, you are probably not going to school on a full-time basis,” he said. “Or if you are, you’re probably not giving the same amount of attention to your schoolwork as you are to everything else you're doing.”
To address that, William Paterson began offering “student success scholarships” that give students $1,000 each year they return with a 3.0 grade-point average and an on-track number of credits.
This fall, the university is using the system that Rowan has been using, designed to allow students to better track progress with clear milestones and for staff to identify pending trouble for students.
At Millersville University, in Lancaster County, new housing on the south side of campus will help create a sense of community and home that will hopefully encourage more students to return, said Brian Hazlett, its vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.
“We want to see the students succeed; we want to see them make a home here,” said Hazlett, whose university has a 76.5 percent retention rate.
None of the administrators said they were satisfied with their rates, eyeing ever-higher numbers. Kesselman said that improving Stockton’s 86.6 percent retention rate will require drilling down into ever-smaller issues, slowly ticking that number higher.
O’Connor said she’s hoping to improve on Temple's 89.9 percent retention rate by tweaking existing programs and, soon, improving the at-risk alert system so it can provide warnings of struggling students faster.
New Jersey City University, which had a 2014-15 retention rate of 74.0 percent, is guaranteeing financial aid to students to cover any gap between the cost of college and state and federal aid.
The university has also begun beefing up its advising systems, revising its scheduling to be more flexible for students, and implementing a student data system, said Sue Henderson, its president.
Henderson said she reminds her staff that the university is meant to serve students, whatever their needs.
“You know every day that if you check into a hotel that they have done a lot of research on what is the most efficient and effective way to make you happy while you’re there,” she said. “That’s what we need to be doing.”