New discussions focus on retention rates

By BenitaZepeda

As the harsh economic climate continues, many colleges are forced to find ways to ensure students return each semester and that they are in the best possible environment. Columbia is currently focusing on how to keep its retention rates up through Retention Discussion Groups.

Columbia’s President Warrick L. Carter requested Vice President of Academic Affairs Louise Love and Vice President of Student Affairs Mark Kelly lead the process to find solutions to ensure

student retention.

The group’s focus is improving graduation and retention rates at Columbia.  The discussions have 10 steering members, including Love and Kelly, and take place every other Monday from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the Faculty Center on the 8th floor of the Alexandroff Campus Center, 600 S. Michigan Ave.

This initiative differs from other ways Columbia has approached the issue before.  This is the first time there has been a group designated to have in-depth conversations about ways the college can increase retention rates. Each discussion will have two expert testimonials on the subject.

Kelly helped form the idea of the discussions when Carter asked for a way to address this issue.

“It is a very different format than we have typically utilized as we took on a big subject like the issue of student retention and graduation rates,” Kelly said.

He said the first discussion was well attended and about 75 people came to watch. Kelly said new students to the college are an important part of retention rates. If students continue their education at Columbia through the second semester of their second year, they are more likely to stay until graduation.

But new students aren’t the only ones affected by retention and graduation rates.  The entire college is impacted, and it requires a joint effort by all departments of the college to help retain students.

“We’re such a big and complex place that we don’t always know about the innovation going on in other areas,” Kelly said. “Now we will be able to comfortably share it and learn from each other.”

Kelly said the model might change forColumbia as far as the methodology for retaining students. The focus would be less on bringing more students to the school, and more on how to better integrate the students that come into the

college’s community.

“We think that the steering committee will hear the expert testimonies of the college, faculty and the staff that are in the trenches working with the students, and out of that will come some clarity of what the next steps will be,” Kelly said.

Pegeen Reichert Powell, assistant professor in English, was one of the first speakers at the first discussion on Oct. 26.

“I argued that in higher education today, the issue of retention is generating a lot of research, scholarship and a lot of interest,” Reichert Powell said.  “Not much has changed, this is nationally, as far as retention numbers.”

Reichert Powell said there aren’t easy solutions to the problem of keeping more students at the school and spoke about keeping the focus not just on first-year students, but also on all of our current students.  She said that finding ways to increase retention and graduation rates starts with taking a look at how faculty and staff can make this the best

institution possible.

“We should be asking, ‘How do we make Columbia the best institution for all students?’” Reichert Powell said. “Some of our students may leave, but while they are here and even after they leave, what are our responsibilities to them, how do we best educate them?”

As The Chronicle reported on Sept. 21, continuing students were the only group to have increased by 1.5 percent from fall 2008.  Since the number of new students decreased this year, it is in the college’s interest to explore ways it can encourage more students to stay at Columbia. Kelly said this is not the direct reason for the current discussions, but is an issue that colleges nationwide look at every year.

Kari Sommers, assistant dean of Student Life, is one of the steering participants in the discussion group and reiterated that although the topic isn’t new, the approach is.

“Having President Carter’s leadership on this is critical,” Sommers said.  “What is unique about this particular process is it’s a very inclusive, transparent and a comprehensive process that involves the

entire college.”

Kelly encourages all faculty, staff and students to get involved. He said that students should know the college is working hard on how they can better educate the students here.

“In the end, it’s not about retention,” Kelly said. “It’s about what we do to educate and to learn from each other, and to do it in a way that better holds on to our students.”