Retention figures up, enrollment numbers down

By BenitaZepeda

For the first time at Columbia, faculty and staff gathered at their own convocation to hear how the administration is combating declining enrollment rates, and discuss ways to increase student success and retention at the college.

The faculty and staff convocation, which was held on Sept. 2 at the Hilton Hotel, 720 S. Michigan Ave., focused on new initiatives to improve retention, statistics on the incoming class and college resources available to students.

“If fundamental to student success is a galvanized community that works cohesively to support our students, then the convocation makes perfect sense,” said Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs.  “We want everyone to understand what is available to students so everyone can be part of the process in ensuring

student success.”

Following remarks by President Warrick Carter and others, a presentation by Kelly showed data on the student body that has served as a catalyst for the college to revamp its methods to assure students stay at Columbia.  The affair also featured an expo that presented information on programs and services available to students, and a performance by a troupe of theater students called The New Tribe.

“I think it is just a good idea to have a convocation of staff and faculty at the beginning of the year,” said Louise Love, vice president of Academic Affairs. “Even if it didn’t have this particular theme or focus, people really seem to enjoy getting inspired about the year.”

Although the numbers are still unofficial as of press time, enrollment for the entire college was down by 1.25 percent from fall 2009.

Retention, which can be measured in several ways, refers to the number of students who stay at an institution to complete a degree.

Maureen Herlehy, director of Enrollment Management Services, said Columbia’s retention rates are directly calculated through an annual census based on the number of first-time, full-time freshmen transitioning into sophomores at the college. Retention rates have increased by 3 percent since fall 2009 by that measure.

Kelly said graduation rates, which track how many entering freshmen complete their degree in six years, are still dismal. Only 40 percent of the freshman class of 2004 remained through graduation. This statistic compares poorly to other higher education institutions, according to Kelly’s presentation.

“Our graduation rate has improved 54 percent in the last 10 years and we won a national award for that,” Kelly said. “That being said, we still need to do better.”

The idea of the convocation emerged from yearlong Retention Discussion Groups and a Retention Discussion Summit held by the college in May of this year. A retention task force was implemented at the summit, inspiring the idea of a convocation for faculty and staff. The next task force meeting will be held in January,

during J-term.

“Once we get students here, we want them to succeed and we want them to graduate,” Love said. “We’re really focusing on that and trying to make it everyone’s business—in class, out of class, on the street—that we’re really caring about the students having a successful experience, and we all play a role in that no matter what our job is.”

Love said the convocation was not exactly about retention, but about how the college can increase student success at Columbia. There were two key ideas she wanted the faculty and staff to learn from the convocation.

The first was not allowing students to get lost on the urban campus. Accordingly,  the administration launched a button campaign to identify staff, faculty and new and continuing students. The buttons allow new students to know who is part of the Columbia community in case they need to ask a question.

At the convocation, faculty and staff received their buttons, which are red for staff and blue for faculty, while student buttons are given out when they pick up their U-Pass, according to Love. Depending on the success of the buttons, the administration hopes it will become a yearly tradition.

Scholarships were also increased for students, and Kelly said roughly 1,000 freshmen received both merit and need-based awards for fall 2010 as opposed to 600 in fall 2009. The overall scholarship fund for the entire student body is $17 million, a 54 percent increase from $11 million,

Kelly said.

Stressing cross-collaboration between departments is also a way to improve student success at Columbia, Kelly said. New programs and initiatives, such as honors courses, enhanced orientations, curricular innovations and student advising are some of the ways faculty and staff have revamped

the college.

Kari Sommers, assistant dean of Student Life, said the convocation was a very inspiring event because students are the reason the faculty and staff are here.

“We’ve never had a convocation that brings the entire [Columbia] community together,” Sommers said. “It gave very important and powerful information to the college in a shared environment where we could create strength from us on behalf of our students.”

Carter was so impressed by the affair that he has declared the convocation an annual event.