2014 Platteville Journal Column

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JanUary 29, 2014

Recently, the White House asked participants of the higher education summit to commit to taking steps to help more low-income students enroll and complete college. The timing of this summit offers an opportunity to acknowledge and reflect upon the gains UW-Platteville has achieved in retention and recruitment over the past several years.

For the last decade or so, UW-Platteville has been the fastest growing university within the UW System. While this has presented both challenges and opportunities, it is important to note that we are excelling in our stated mission of providing a high-quality, affordable and accessible education to our students. One of the keys to our continued success is increasing retention rates. Preliminary data indicates a positive increase in retention for all UW-Platteville students within the past three years.

Student retention is a well-documented challenge for higher education. According to a study by Hanover Research, every year more than 20 percent of full-time freshman students at four year institutions nationwide drop out. For low-income and other at risk students, this trend is even more pronounced. It is clear, that increased access to higher education means little if it does not lead to increased college completion.

On average over 46% of our freshman are first generation college students. That said, part of our challenge is to communicate to these students both the importance of a fully immersive college experience and the expectations required to succeed in a rigorous academic environment. While many universities speak of the importance of increasing student retention, we have invested substantial resources in programs designed to achieve that end for all students.

The most visible indication of our dedication to increased retention was the construction of Rountree Commons and Bridgeway Commons, which allows all freshman and sophomores to live on campus. A recent study entitled Determinants and Probability Prediction of College Student Retention: New Evidence from the Probit Model by Yu, Lin, Chen and Kaufman indicates that retention probabilities increase by 6% if students live on campus their first semester. These new living and learning communities encourage engagement and focus on academic achievement, thus providing these students a safe, structured environment for scholarly pursuits.

One of our retention efforts that I am most proud of is our ability to offer incoming students customized resources based on their level of academic readiness. Our dedicated teaching faculty and staff work closely with students and provide programming such as basic skills courses, tutoring, and academic support programs. Research shows that students who seek and receive academic support have been found to improve both their academic performance and their academic self-efficacy. To further address this need, we recently restructured our department of academic affairs. By subsuming academic affairs with student affairs, both entities are now closely aligned to track student progress, address retention issues, and develop academic resources to further aid student progress.

Many of our retention programs are designed to reach students early in their academic careers. For example, our summer bridge programs provide students the opportunity to strengthen academic skills, familiarize themselves with campus resources, and develop a peer support network. We also offer a First Year Experience Program to help students transition into college life. For those students not yet proficient in college level coursework, we offer remedial courses to help create a solid academic foundation from which to build. In addition, many students participate in a cohort model which enables them to attend classes together as a group through a pre-determined sequence of courses.  Research indicates that students who participate in cohort groups have higher graduation rates, a greater sense of community, and have the ability to better plan their degree path due to the ordered structure of the courses.

Our university also focuses on early awareness efforts with high school students. For instance, UW-Platteville offers the Explore Engineering Summer Program, which gives participating high school students hands-on experience in eight engineering disciplines, math and chemistry. Programs such as this create intensive and long lasting relationships with prospective students and helps put them on track to pursuing these disciplines in college.

These efforts all contribute to the successful increase student retention at our university. We have a proud tradition of serving our region and state. To always provide our students with a high-quality, affordable and accessible education, we are committed to continuously evaluating new retention programs in order to improve delivery of services, outcomes and the use of limited resources. Thus, ultimately ensuring every student possesses the tools and support needed to successfully earn a degree from UW-Platteville.

Dennis J. Shields
Chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Platteville

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