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New office charged with enhancing student retention

Higher education officials call it failure to persist. Marketers sometimes call it the hole in the bottom of the bucket, where students "leak out" the bottom of the system as others are funneled in the top.

Retention is a problem at colleges and universities throughout the country, but particularly at Austin Peay. With a 68.9 percent retention rate in Fall 2000, APSU is a full 10 percentage points behind all other public universities in both "fall-to-fall retention" rates and "six-year persistence-to-graduation rates" for first-time, full-time freshmen.
Higher education officials call it failure to persist. Marketers sometimes call it the hole in the bottom of the bucket, where students "leak out" the bottom of the system as others are funneled in the top.

Retention is a problem at colleges and universities throughout the country, but particularly at Austin Peay. With a 68.9 percent retention rate in Fall 2000, APSU is a full 10 percentage points behind all other public universities in both "fall-to-fall retention" rates and "six-year persistence-to-graduation rates" for first-time, full-time freshmen.

Improving the University's retention rate is what the newly formed Academic Support Office is all about. Established in Fall 2003, the office is headed by Dr. Harriett McQueen, who in previous years served as chair of the business education department in what was then the College of Business and later as director of student teaching in what was the College of Education.

Academic Support reflects a partnership between the Academic Affairs and Student Affairs offices, McQueen says, and its decisions are based on input from people across the campus. "A Core Retention Committee worked diligently in the fall to study the issues and make recommendations that have directed the efforts of the office," she explains.

Retention isn't a new issue at Austin Peay. It has been the focus of several initiatives. "But they're fragmented," McQueen says. "Student Support Services serves 180 to 200 students. The Student Success Program serves only African American students.

"Our objective is to look at the efforts directed toward targeted populations and see how much difference they're making. If something is working, we want to implement it more broadly to benefit other students.”

One initiative that's showing great promise is the freshman-experience course. "What we've found is that few students are ready for the leap from high school to the university," McQueen says. "They lack time-management skills and study skills."

This is true not only at APSU but nationwide, she adds, and it's true regardless of student test scores. "Studies indicate that state-mandated tests don't necessarily equate to success in the university setting."

The majority of freshmen need structure as they become acclimated to college, and the LART 1000 course has been redesigned to provide this structure, McQueen says. The course will be a requirement for all first-time, full-time freshmen who enter in the fall semester. "Our goal is for every student to be able to navigate the academic system and go on to graduate," she adds.

"Intrusive intervention" is another component that's been shown to impact retention positively by combining concern with accountability.

"We ask faculty to refer students who are struggling or not showing up for class," McQueen says. "They will be able do this electronically using a form on the Web, or by using forms that we mail them in the fifth week of the semester. We then contact students they refer and try to address any problems instructors have noted."

Sometimes, students simply aren't "getting it" in a particular subject. For those students, Academic Support offers tutoring. Four graduate students in Academic Support coordinate tutoring for students struggling with math or other subjects. Forty peer tutors work six hours per week in the Academic Support Center to provide general tutoring.

Others students are struggling because they're in the throes of emotional or psychological problems. They are referred to Counseling Services.

The final component in student success is advisement. "Research suggests that advising is key in student retention," McQueen says. In recognition of that fact, two advisers for undecided majors will be added to the Career Services Offices in the fall, McQueen says.

Academic Support also plans to offer advising workshops to help faculty better advise students. "This will be particularly significant as we make the transition to a new core and 120-hour programs of study," McQueen says.

Retention has become an even more important issue since the launch of the state's HOPE scholarship funds. Students must maintain a 3.0 GPA to continue to receive funds.

"Getting a HOPE scholarship and keeping it are two different things," McQueen says. "In Georgia, only about 20 percent of students who receive HOPE scholarships as entering freshmen have retained them until graduation. With more intrusive advising, we hope to enhance the chance APSU students have for continuing to receive scholarships funds."

In response to the Core Retention Committee's recommendation that the University recognize the challenge of the freshmen year, eight people will attend the annual conference on the First-Year Experience in Dallas. The conference is sponsored by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, University of South Carolina.

The team of faculty and student affairs personnel will provide leadership in redesigning the curriculum for LART 1000, developing a more intrusive advising process for freshmen and enhancing the Transitions program. They also will be a part of an advisory committee for the Academic Support Center.

Through a variety of initiatives, Academic Support hopes to assist Austin Peay students in achieving a degree. Consequently, the "hole in the bucket" finally may be filled.
—Debbie Denton