Columbia takes action to improve student retention

By Amina Sergazina, Staff Reporter

Kayla Macedo

In each year of the last decade, more than a quarter of first-year students have left Columbia prior to their second year. Now, with the help of administrators charged with focusing specifically on the issue, the college is creating revised retention goals, developing new strategies and amplifying collaboration among faculty.

The new leadership roles for this goal were announced last month in an email from the Office of the President that named Michael Joseph as senior vice president for enrollment management and retention and Associate Professor Greg Foster-Rice as the associate provost for student retention initiatives.

Joseph said the college aims to increase the first-year retention rate to the 74% range by the next academic year and to 80% in the long term. The highest retention rate in the past decade was 71.5% in Fall 2018, according to retention data from the college.

COVID-19 has contributed to lower retention, but first-year retention was low prior to 2019.

“[Columbia doesn’t] really do well anywhere, quite frankly,” Joseph said referring to retention.

“I think we need to look across the whole institution in every program, including every department as well,” Joseph said. “We really don’t have any particular academic departments where retention is strong.”

Joseph said there are two groups of students who especially struggle with poor retention: students who have high financial need and students of color. He said these students are found across the student population.

Jewel Baker, the vice president of Soul Sisters — a student organization designed to foster sisterhood among Black women — shared that one of the reasons why some of her Black classmates dropped out is that some find the experience “a bit overwhelming.”

Baker, a junior cinema and television major with a minor in photography who has experienced being the only Black woman in a lot of her classes, said she has adapted to this, but other students may find it more challenging.

She said that in Black and Brown communities — like the South Side where she was raised — art is not viewed as a realistic career path like medicine or law, and many schools simply don’t have the resources to have art programs to encourage the kids.

Not only the culture within the communities, but the lack of representation of successful Black artists in the mainstream media also makes students doubt themselves as artists and could add to lower retention rates of Columbia as an art college, Baker said.

“But even though we may not have [Black artists] that we look up to … just know that you can become that person for somebody else,” said Baker, who hopes that the presence of groups like Soul Sisters and the Black Student Union will help improve retention rates.

Elijah Jagours, the BSU president, highlighted the lack of Black students and faculty on campus as another reason for lower retention rates. Even though Jagours is a senior music major, during his freshman year he was thinking about leaving Columbia.

But Jagours said it was the annual BSU Blackout Party, scheduled this year for Oct.14, that helped convince him to stay.

“It’s obvious that Columbia is a predominantly white institution; I think that that can be seen even in the education,”Jagours said. “I’ve had African study classes where the teacher is white, which has completely discouraged me from even wanting to really even learn anything just because it doesn’t feel right, even if the person may be qualified or not.”

Jagours wishes that in the future Columbia will make an effort to reach out to more Black graduate students for teacher assistant roles and recruit more from predominantly Black high schools.

Foster-Rice said the college is analyzing if there are connections between why students commonly drop out and other challenges.

Rolando Cisneros transferred to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign after his first year at Columbia in 2021 and is now a junior lighting design and technology major. He dreamed of living in the city, but COVID-19 restrictions at the time, isolation from friends and feeling like he did not fit in made Cisneros switch to a more traditional campus.

“Columbia has a certain vibe to it; it’s not a bad thing,” Cisneros said. “A lot of people wear whatever they feel their expertise is on their sleeve. It’s like how people say ‘that’s your only personality trait.’”

Cisneros said faculty at Columbia are very well connected, but the school was geared more toward film and photography majors because he felt they had more resources.

Currently, Cisneros is fulfilling his dreams of DJing and working on shows and enjoys the more tight-knit community he has found at the University of Illinois.

Foster-Rice said it will be a long process of analyzing different data to come up with solutions for retention rates. He plans to work with student organizations like the Student Government Association and faculty groups to learn about challenges in students’ experiences.

“I would like to make myself approachable. I like to hear from students about any challenges that they’ve had. I’d also like to hear what are the things that make students feel like they belong and that they’re very engaged with Columbia,” Foster-Rice said.