Student Persistence and the Cluster Initiative

The First Year Seminar (FYS) Fellows have already met for many hours this summer to work on our Fall offerings of the course. We are designing some common assessments as we work on the course and so we had some questions for the Deans. Dean Robyn Parker met with us on Thursday to talk about assessment and the topic of student retention came up. One of the goals for the upcoming academic year, she told us, will be to improve our retention of students from their first year to their sophomore year. The initiative is called “Drive to 85,” indicating that we would like to improve our first to second year student retention rate to 85%.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about topics that are directly and indirectly related to student retention. For example, at the Academic Technology Institute (which I wrote about in my last post), Robin DeRosa, in her keynote, talked about making education learner-driven rather than institution-driven. We often talk about issues, she said, solely from the perspective of the institution without thinking about the student perspective. The example she gave was when we talk about “student retention,” we are clearly looking at the issue of students staying in school or leaving school from the point of view of the institution rather than the point of view of the student. Students don’t retain themselves. Instead, students persist. So when we talk about this issue, perhaps we should talk about student persistence as a subtle but important reminder to focus on the student. I completely agree with this point and so will talk about student persistence from now on. I know some people will feel that this shift makes no difference but I think language is powerful and these kinds of subtle distinctions can play a huge role in how we act and react to issues.

I’m also reading a lot of stuff that is related to student persistence. I’m currently reading a book called The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. I’ve written before that I think the most exciting part of the cluster initiative is that we will truly focus on students and the experience they have while at PSU. It’s probably no surprise that I’m finding the book right on target and really helpful so far. The authors discuss the fact that many (most?) institutions have initiatives through which they try to positively impact the student experience on their campuses. Many of these initiatives fail because they are not systemic and don’t question the underlying assumptions of what we do and why we do it. As the authors write, “Isolated actions, no matter how effective or purposeful, are not enough. Instead, a college needs a shared, aspirational vision for both student learning and for the institution’s future.” The authors go on to argue that “Systemic small steps by faculty, staff, and institutions can yield big gains for student learning.”

One of the issues that I think we’ve been struggling with at PSU is that not everyone understands their role in the cluster initiative. The authors of the book suggest that “To thrive, everyone at the institution needs to be asking, how does my work contribute positively to our students’ learning?” And then they acknowledge that “for some at our institutions, such as employees in the accounting office or in the building and grounds department, that question might seem bewildering.” If we look at things from the student’s perspective, their interactions with everyone on campus contribute to the experience they have here. If we want to positively impact the student experience, everyone needs to be involved. But again, not everyone understands how they can make a difference. So what do we do?

I think that we need to make the “Drive to 85” the main focus of the upcoming academic year (the entire year, not just University Days). We should have professional development opportunities for faculty and staff to learn about the kinds of experiences that positively impact student success. There is a lot of research about this already so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the authors of the book write, “Our challenge is no longer simply to ascertain what it is we need to do; our challenge now is to do it, … .” In addition, I think many of the things we’ve said we want to do with clusters are actually things that the research shows will have a positive impact on student success. We need to come to common understandings of what those things are. We should then be provided with time and space and more professional development to explore the ways in which each of us, as individuals and as members of various groups, can provide those experiences to all of our students. And finally, we should be held accountable for developing and implementing these experiences.

The appendices contain the core themes and action principles of the book as well as questions for reflection to support this work. In fact, those resources are freely available on the companion web site.  I think if everyone on campus had concrete things to focus on in creating an environment that supports student persistence, we would not only reach our goal of 85%, we also would create our unique institutional identity, our brand, that would bring students to our campus in order to get those experiences.

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