Updated April 19 at 9:55 a.m.
Bianca Crawford, graduate student in Business Administration, said there were a number of occasions when she felt like giving up on college.
“You sometimes get to the point where you think you just can’t do it and it gets tough,” Crawford said. “Unfortunately, high school does not prepare you for the next level.”
Crawford said some students coming from lower income school districts, like the one she graduated from, are subject to disadvantages when it comes to preparing for college. She said she didn’t even know how to study for college-level classes because her high school had not adequately prepared her for what to expect.
And while there are tutoring centers, coaches and mentors available for students, Crawford said sometimes that’s just not enough.
“There are so many resources, but a lot of people don’t know how to ask for help,” Crawford said. “Or they don’t want to ask for help for fear of looking incompetent.”
According to Third Way, a Washington-based think tank in the U.S. Department of Education, a recent study showed that Texas students at four-year public colleges and universities, only about 40 percent of them graduate within six years. This staggering low percentage of graduates and the added time it’s taking students to obtain a four-year degree has sparked the need for enhanced retention programs at Texas universities.
Like Crawford, many students enrolled at the university are at risk at some point in their college careers, but officials at Texas A&M University-San Antonio have taken a strategic move toward understanding and encouraging student retention.
Student retention is just one of the initiatives that Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson, president Texas A&M University-San Antonio, discussed in her Spring 2018 Convocation speech, which she hopes will take the university to the next level in degree achievement. Expanding the school’s focus to include both growth and retention goals is part of the plan for A&M-San Antonio, now that the school has surpassed the ten-year mark.
Ashley Spicer-Runnels, assistant vice-president for university college, said prior to 2017, the university did not focus on retention efforts. Instead, the university established a committee whose function was the downward expansion process to bring in lower division students.
But now that the university has successfully enrolled its first freshman class, the school is implementing plans aimed at both growth and retention. In order to boost performance in the school’s persistence rate for student retention, they formed the Committee on Retention Efforts (CORE) .
Spicer-Runnels said the shift from focusing on downward expansion to retention efforts required committee changes as well, negating the need for the super committee.
“Once that committee was dissolved, there was conversation about the need to monitor how our students are being retained and so CORE was born from that,” Spicer-Runnels said.
To gauge student retention, the committee has established two metrics markers. The first is measuring first-time, full-time students. The goal is 80 percent retention from students first to second year, Spicer-Runnels said. The second goal is 90 percent retention from first semester to second. “There’s still room to grow,” Spicer-Runnels said, but overall the numbers look good.
Of the students who enrolled in college for the first time in fall 2016, 86.5 percent also enrolled in spring 2017, and 68.2 percent enrolled in fall 2017. And of the students who enrolled in college for the first time in fall 2017, 87 percent also enrolled in spring 2018.
There are so many factors that can impact student retention. The members of CORE are always evaluating not only the internal factors, but also the external factors that may have a bearing on each student’s success.
“While we have not quite hit the mark exactly, we are really drilling down to figure out what is impacting that success and then figuring out ways to put interventions or initiatives in to solve those things proactively,” Spicer-Runnels said.
So, the challenge for CORE is identifying students who may need assistance, because as Crawford pointed out, not all students are willing or able to ask for help.
One of the ways CORE is helping is by identifying students who have a high balance at the university just before registration (those students usually do not register for classes). The students are contacted by someone from CORE who guide them through the process of getting that balance satisfied through financial assistance or some other means so they are able to register for the upcoming semester.
Spicer-Runnels said the university also has a reporting system, which is used by students, called EAB. The EAB, a student success collaborative, is a qualitative and quantitative information tool used to determine the retention habits of students who interface with the program. Over time, more and more students will interface with the program.
“The predictive analytics will only get stronger,” Spicer-Runnels said. “To help us understand how to best serve our students.”
Another tool CORE has employed to aid in retention efforts is the student experience map. They created what they consider to be the ideal student experience from year zero through graduation, Zero Four Plus. Spicer-Runnels said they document all of the measures necessary to create the ideal student experience and then measure it against real students to find the gaps.
“We map what their process is like so that way we can identify where they are not matching that ideal experience,” Spicer-Runnels said. “We can be more predictive in how to anticipate what challenges may occur and what barriers may come up so we can intervene before it becomes a problem.”
Crawford said that sports and intramurals are a great way to help with student retention, and a proactive step the university could take toward helping students stay in school.
“Being a part of those extra-curricular activities allows you to meet so many more people,” Crawford said. “It assists you in the process of wanting to be there [at Texas A&M-San Antonio] and wanting to finish with your friends.”
She said the experience of going to games together and bonding with teammates forms a synergistic relationship because the connections with fellow students actually helped students bond with the university too. And that type of attachment with the university has a positive impact on student retention.
The relationships Crawford shared with classmates at Texas A&M University-College Station, where she did her undergraduate work, gave her a sense of belonging. She and her friends all supported and helped each other along the way.
“Hey, we’re in this together and we can get this done together,” Crawford said.
CORE has a similar collaborative spirit, comprised of faculty, staff and students all working together toward a common goal. The committee strives for excellence and is not content with just meeting student needs, but exceeding those needs.