Efforts to improve retention yielding positive results

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By Colt Dodd

In the wake of the disappointing results of last year’s college scorecard which culminated in the loss of $1,080,000 in funding, the administration is hoping to increase this year’s score by improving the school’s retention rate. Statistics gathered from the registrar’s office revealed that the retention rate for last year’s incoming class was 80 percent, squashing rumors that 100 students from the second-year class had either failed out or transferred. Between the end of last spring semester to the end of module one, roughly 50 students had left the college for reasons that included transfers, academic dismissals, leave of absence and emergency leave of absence. Although the school’s overall retention rate is currently 87 percent, if New College is to regain funding through a better performance on the college scorecard, this number must be increased.

One of the challenges of increasing retention is determining what factors are contributing to students’ decisions to withdraw or transfer. Dean of Studies Robert Zamsky remarked that because of the small sample size of students that leave every year, it is difficult to pinpoint for what reasons students are leaving.

“From a statistician’s point of view, our sample size is so small, if you take 50 students that leave over an entire year, well, that’s not enough students to yield a pattern. So if you plot the reasons why they leave, it’s just scattershot,” Zamsky said. “What we do see routinely is there are some students leave because they want to do a discipline that they can’t really do here. So if a student really decided that they really want to do a creative writing B.A., well, we would say there’s a lot of ways to do creative writing… but if you had had your heart set on a B.A. in creative writing and that’s what you need to do, then that makes sense.”

Zamsky noted that the low retention rate is not largely in part to students failing out. Contrary to how the contract system worked in previous years where students had to fail two consecutive contracts to face academic dismissal, students who fail any two contracts face being terminated. Coming into fall 2014, seven students were dismissed from the college, a small number in comparison to the vast majority of students who chose not to return to New College independent of academic status. According to Dean of Students Tracy Murry, New College loses students who decide to either withdraw or transfer on break periods as opposed to the middle of the semester.

“We lose most of our students during the summer and in December and January when they’re not here, so they’ve made the choice not to come back to school,” Murry said. “That’s an area we’ve improved on a little bit from last year, not but a whole lot. What we have improved on is the students who are coming to us in the middle of the semester who are deciding to leave. That number has been very, very small and when you factor in people who are leaving, who are transferring, who are taking emergency leaves, there’s a big chunk who are leaving because they are taking a leave of some sort, not because they’re giving up on school.”

Murry noted that the comments made by the scorecard have in fact yielded positive results. Residence Life’s push for themed housing that include wellness, international and quiet dorms were slight alterations that yielded positive results for those who opted to live in them. For example, last year W and X had the lowest retention rate among students last year, but this year, since they were made into Living Learning Communities, they now have the highest retention rates. Allowing first year students to live in apartment style dorms and upper years to live in Pei has also played an integral role in maintaining stable community atmospheres. Murry noted that students who had to change rooms because of roommate conflicts or had neighbors around them that withdrew were more likely to end up withdrawing themselves. Additionally, students who were tripled in Pei were more likely to graduate from New College than those that were in doubles. In the future, because of the success that came with the renovations, Murry added that more facility improvements may be underway. Move-in day of August 2014 was the first time that no first-year students left upon being moved into Pei, chalked up to the renovations done in third court.

Though it will be difficult to tackle, campus climate is one of the largest challenges that administration seeks to improve in regards to retention.

“I’d say [campus climate] is the biggest issue that we’re dealing with,” Murry said. “People who stay, who love this campus and people who hate this campus and leave, the constant thing that I hear is that it’s such a negative environment. I hear that if you throw out an idea that other student will rip it apart instead of weighing options – people’s first reaction is a negative reaction to anything, like change, for example.”

Zamsky prefers to not use the word “campus climate” but instead “maintaining a healthy campus community.”

“I would emphasize that students have a huge role to play and I think one of the best things about New College is the activeness of students… I feel that if students had approached [retention] as a positive thing like: ‘Let’s build this community and have a healthy, active, engaging fun place to be,’ then I think that kind of peer effort would probably have better results than anything that administration can do. There’s only so much that we can do top-down. That’s crucial. That’s how New College is. Students are the ones that really run the place.”

Murry remarked that he is confident that the retention is improving and will be reflected on the scorecard.

“So far, it looks pretty good,” Murry said. “The campus seems to be much more settled, accepting of some of the changes that have been made and benefitting from some of the changes… one of the lessons we learned from the performance scoring is that no one likes change, not even administrators, and I think that once we said, ‘Hey, there’s some benefit here,’ … I think we feel more positive after the experience.”

Zamsky felt similarly. “[New College] is a great place and everyone should have a rewarding time at it,” he said.

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