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Student retention: UM's other (other) problem

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In November 2015, University of Montana students in a focus group were asked to rate campus administrative services on a scale from one to five. One participant didn't think the scale went low enough. She couldn't cite a single positive interaction with the school, but did blame administrative delays for hurting her financially. That student, according to a May report, decided the university services rated "probably a 1. Maybe even like a 0.25."

"There seems to be a small amount of incompetence," she said.

That's a stinging rebuke, but at least she was still on campus for staff to hear it. An increasing number of UM students are dropping out—and for reasons that aren't entirely clear to campus leaders. The proportion of full-time freshmen who returned to UM for their sophomore year dipped below 70 percent last fall for the first time since 2003, according to university data. While UM's struggle to recruit new students has been the chief cause of its enrollment and financial situation, the problem is compounded by a sagging retention rate that has dropped more than 5 percentage points in five years and is now below the national average.

"For every one student we lose, it takes seven more in our prospect pool to replace them," says Vice President for Enrollment Management Tom Crady.

Retention is an indicator of new students' satisfaction with their school, and it's one of the key ways Montana universities measure themselves. State officials use the retention rate to determine whether UM receives millions in "performance funding" each year. The university's own strategic plan aims to increase the rate to 83 percent by 2020. It was 72 percent when the plan was written.

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

Early progress has since evaporated, leading faculty and staff this year to renew their focus on improving the student experience. Students leave for a variety of reasons, some of them personal and beyond the university's control. Financial barriers seem to top the list, says Brian French, executive director of the Office of Student Success.

Student feedback, however, is inconsistent. Staff glean some information from withdrawal forms, registrar's notes and a survey emailed to departing students. But as Crady pointed out at a recent campus meeting, UM's admissions team doesn't conduct more thorough exit interviews. "We really haven't done a lot of research on students who leave," he says.

Nonetheless, French says, his office and others are taking a number of steps to keep students happy and enrolled, from improving advising services to piloting an elective seminar designed, in part, to help freshmen navigate the "academic labyrinth." Crady says students typically leave as a result of accumulated bad experiences, not one frustration, while French suggests the cloud of bad news that's hung over campus in recent years also affects how students feel about the school. So, in addition to refining specific programs, campus leaders say they're trying to improve the broader climate.

"We want this to be the type of learning environment where students feel at home," French says.

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