Stevenah Gardner was struggling with her freshman chemistry course at Ursinus College, with good reason. The chemistry teacher she had in high school was absent most of the year.
“So I didn’t really learn anything,” she said.
It’s the kind of thing that could have upended the freshman experience for the 19-year-old biology major from Bowie, Md.
But Gardner sought help at the college’s recently opened Ursinus Institute for Student Success, designed to help students resolve academic, social, or personal issues and stay in school.
The college started the institute this year after noticing a dip in the percentage of freshmen who returned as sophomores. In fall 2016, 84.4 percent of the 429 freshmen came back, compared to an average of 87.8 percent over the previous four years.
It’s not a huge difference — roughly 12 students — but in a highly competitive higher-education market where colleges are vying for a smaller number of high school graduates, Ursinus didn’t want to let it pass.
“Over the last two or three enrollment cycles we started to see a bit more fragility in our retention rates,” said Ursinus president Brock Blomberg. “[Last year] we created a retention-advisory group, which was a mix of faculty and staff. This year we upped the ante and created the institute.”
Officials at the institute — which includes a staff of six and about 100 peer tutors — will study the college’s data to learn why students didn’t return, the warning signs, and what they can do to alter programs and services to make a difference. They also will focus on raising Ursinus' six-year graduation rate of 78 percent.
They plan to have some preliminary findings by the end of the fall and more by summer 2018. They hope what they discover will help their campus and others that have struggled with keeping students in college.
Nationally, 70 percent of freshmen at public colleges returned to the same institutions as sophomores in 2015, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. At private, nonprofit, four-year colleges, 75 percent went back to the same school.
Percentages vary regionally, from a high of 98 percent at Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania to a low of 44 percent at Cheyney University, a historically black school that is part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. The percentages are from the National Center for Education Statistics and based on first-time freshmen who started college in 2014 and returned as sophomores in 2015.
Within the Pennsylvania state system, West Chester University had the highest retention, 88 percent, while retention for the other 12 schools ranged from 69.4 percent to 83.3 percent. The system’s average is 78 percent, a bit higher than the average of peer schools nationally at 75.6 percent.
Freshman Retention Rates at Local Colleges
Improving retention is one of many issues under study as the system prepares for the possibility of mergers or closure of some of its campuses in the wake of a 12 percent enrollment decline since 2010. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems based in Boulder, Colo., is conducting the study with results expected this summer.
“It is something we’ve paid attention to for years,” said Kenn Marshall, a state system spokesman. “Obviously with fewer people coming into the universities, it’s even more important that we work to keep those students who do enroll at the universities and on track to graduate.”
At Ursinus, a 1,600-student, private liberal arts college in Collegeville, officials had contact with all but three of the 67 students who didn’t return last fall, said Missy Bryant, assistant dean of students and codirector of the institute. While enrolled, they got tutoring, were involved in student activities, or came in for counseling or other help, she said.
The reasons students said they were leaving varied from finances, to family challenges, to mental-health issues, to academic struggles, she said.
“In the majority of cases we did have interventions,” Bryant said. “So the Ursinus Institute’s goal is to look at the interventions we currently use … and use assessment to determine what’s working, what’s not, and if things are not working, what would work instead.”
For example, she routinely meets with students who have two or more Ds or Fs, and those who are the first to sign up to see her typically make it to sophomore year, she said.
“I want to know are these meetings effective or would they be OK regardless,” she said.
Ursinus runs reports on students requesting transcripts every month and calls them in to talk.
The institute also has begun to ask additional questions of those who withdraw to learn more about their reasons, she said.
Blomberg said while many students who drop out blame finances, he believes that the institute will find more often that academic struggles are the reason. The college dismissed eight first-year students for academic reasons after the fall semester; students dismissed had a grade point average below .67, which means failing or getting Ds in most courses.
“Ursinus is really academically rigorous so that can be a big shock, especially as far as writing standards go,” said Helen Brabant-Bleakley, 21, a junior from Indianapolis.
The sociology and French major works as a French tutor and office assistant at the institute. She likes that the college created the institute, but educating students that help is available can be a challenge, she said.
“There needs to be more awareness,” agreed Sydney Dickson, 20, a junior German and anthropology and sociology major from Quakertown. “A lot of it is how are these things advertised. Are students pushed to use the center and to use places like these to their advantage?”
Blomberg said a close-knit college like Ursinus, where more than 95 percent of students live on campus, has a better chance of identifying students at risk of dropping out and getting them help.
“If a student has challenges, we want to be ready to support them right off the bat,” he said.
The dip in retention isn’t the only enrollment challenge the college has faced.
This year’s freshman class of 382 students is smaller than usual; the year before there were 429. As a result, the college had to make some cuts, Blomberg said.
Next year looks more promising. Applications were up 40 percent, which officials said was due, in part, to the college’s new Gateway Scholarship for high achievers. Ursinus received about 3,500 applications for 435 spots in the freshman class. About 900 were eligible for the scholarship of $30,000 per year for four years, said Dave Tobias, vice president and dean of enrollment management. The percentage of students who have committed to enroll next fall also is up 15 percent, Tobias said.
Despite enrollment challenges, the college has continued to invest in the campus, Blomberg said. It’s building a $29 million Innovation and Discovery Center to house public affairs, science, business, and entrepreneurship, due to open in 2018.
The campus also is planning an institute for equity and inclusion and a new commons area.
Gardner said she is happy with Ursinus and plans to stay. The institute helped her make a plan to bring up the chemistry grade, she said. A friend of hers got help at the institute on how to balance studying and social life.
“It’s so accessible,” she said. “Whenever I have a problem, everyone in this office is there for you.”