Committee looks to boost university’s retention rates

    Barbara Herman, associate vice chancellor for student affairs (center), answers a question posed by an audience member at the town hall meeting Wednesday in the Brown-Lupton Student Center. The other panelists are Catherine Wehlburg, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence (left), and Andy Fort, chairman of the Faculty Senate.

    One out of every six freshmen who start their college careers at TCU don’t finish them here, leaving after their first or second semester for reasons ranging from not fitting in socially to not be challenged enough academically, TCU researchers said.To boost TCU’s retention rate of 83.9 percent, Chancellor Victor Boschini created a task force to study the issue. The Retention Data Analysis Committee studied expectations students had of TCU when they enrolled versus the actual experiences they had.

    Dean of Admissions Ray Brown said the retention rate is average for an institution of TCU’s size and stature when compared nationally, but is lower than other private universities, like SMU and Baylor.

    The committee’s study followed 106 freshmen who started at TCU in fall 2004 and chose not to return for the spring semester, said Catherine Coghlan, assistant director of the Center for Institutional Research.

    “We want to find out what it is about the group of students who are leaving that is off skew,” Coghlan said.

    According to the study, nonreturning students were studied based on college, ethnicity and gender, and were surveyed about both academic and social issues related to their experiences at TCU.

    The study’s questions about academics included level of academic challenge, academic advising, student-faculty interaction, staff interaction and classroom interaction with other students.

    Social expectation questions covered campus environment, social opportunities, the residence halls and student interaction. Students who participated in recruitment were asked about that experience also.

    The study found that concerns for nonreturning students included lack of order and discipline in the residence halls, and students wanting more direction and guidance in academic advising.

    According to the study, social problems were mentioned often. Coghlan said nonreturning students felt a student had to be in the Greek community to have a good social experience.

    According to the study, 66 percent of students who chose not to return for their second semester cited academic reasons and 67 percent named social reasons. (Some students cited both social and academic reasons.)

    “There is a combination of factors for each student,” Coghlan said.

    The study reports that differences between students who stay and those who leave, correlated to how well social experiences matched expectations.

    The most common response from students who chose not to return to TCU had to do with an inability to make connections with others, the study found. These nonreturning students also had the lowest rates of co-curricular participation, according to the study.

    The study also found differences in the reasons students left after one semester and those who left after two.

    According to the study, students who stayed at TCU for their entire first year, but were not enrolled in fall 2005, most frequently cited finances as the primary reason they did not plan to return.

    Coghlan said financial reasons came up often during the surveys, but were not always the No. 1 reason students chose not to come back.

    “I think it goes back to the combination of reasons,” Coghlan said. “When students aren’t doing well socially, it doesn’t make spending the money to attend TCU worth it.”

    Students who left TCU said they did so for a number of different reasons. Former student Sean Harrison said he left for financial reasons after losing his aid, while Stephanie Leintz said she left to find a school with people more like her.

    “It just wasn’t the right fit socially for me,” said Leintz, currently a student at Sam Houston State University.

    Harrison, now at Texas State University, said he wished more had been done to find a solution for him to stay.

    “Had they tried to help me, I think I would have worked harder to stay,” Harrison said. “But I don’t think that anyone on the administration level even knew that I was leaving. Nobody offered me any help.”

    Former student Ashley Whitehead left TCU after her first year to transfer to the University of Texas at Austin. Whitehead said she always wanted to attend UT-Austin, but couldn’t get in right out of high school because she wasn’t in the top 10 percent of her class.

    The study found that the majority of nonreturning students left TCU for public institutions.

    Of students from out of state, all but four transferred to institutions in their home states, while students from Texas, transferred to public schools in the state, Coghlan said.

    The University of North Texas was the No. 1 institution that students transferred to from TCU, according to the study. This was followed closely by the University of Texas at Arlington and Blinn Community College.

    During a presentation the committee gave on Sept. 8, Mike Scott, committee chairman and director of financial aid, said another reason for leaving TCU is students he called “high achievers.”

    The study reports that of the students who left TCU after their first semester, 12 percent had a GPA of 3.6 or higher and 53.7 percent had a GPA of 2.6 or higher. Only 22 percent of nonreturning students had a GPA lower than 1.6.

    Catherine Wehlburg, director of the Koehler Center for Teaching Excellence, said helping students fit in academically is something faculty can improve to boost retention rates.

    “This isn’t the traditional retention problem where students are flunking out of school,” Wehlburg said.

    Teresa Farnum, a retention specialist and consultant hired by TCU in spring 2005, said a first-year retention rate of 88 percent is attainable for TCU in the next five years.

    The committee’s study reports that as TCU has become more selective, the retention rate has increased. Brown said the university will continue to become more selective in the coming years.

    “It’s do-able,” Brown said. “While it’s not going to be easy, it’s something we can and should do.