Not all student successes can or should be measured by numbers. However, one vital predictor of a university’s ability to support its students and their academic success can be found in one very important number: the percentage of incoming first-time, full-time students who are still enrolled one year later, otherwise known as retention.
The good news is, “According to national data, we are slightly ahead of our peer institutions when it comes to retention of full-time students,” said Shari Ellertson, director of institutional research.
But that wasn’t always the case. In 2005, Boise State administrators convened a Freshmen Success Taskforce to understand and improve retention, and committed to implementing new policies and programs to give every undergraduate student every chance at success on campus. Their efforts have been successful. In 2005, Boise State retained only 63 percent of its first-time, full-time degree seeking students, but by 2015, that number was up to 78 percent.
It’s important to stress, as Ellertson often does, that retention numbers don’t capture all students – because the definition only encompasses first time, full-time students, it leaves out transfer students and part-time students. In addition, retention itself is a complex construct, mainly because life is complicated. “Retention is not linear – students can have a great class, have a great peer group, and then life intervenes with health issues, breakups or financial issues and it takes them off course,” Ellertson said. “One of the questions we get a lot is, ‘Is what we’re doing working?’ Although it’s difficult to isolate the impact of any one initiative or program on retention, it seems clear that the collective efforts have been paying off.”
Coupled with that are Boise State’s own growing pains, as the university swiftly transitions from a primarily commuter campus populated with nontraditional students to one with more traditional students, many of whom want to live on campus and graduate in four years.
“We still have many nontraditional students but our challenge, as we’ve gotten more traditional in our student demographics, has been implementing programs that could support our diverse student body as they progress towards their chosen degrees,” explained Martin Schimpf, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Schimpf noted that in 2005, the number of first-time students who graduated in four years was just over 5 percent – in 2016 it was over 21 percent. “Since we formulated our student success plan, our retention and graduation rates have climbed steadily,” Schimpf said.
Attaining this calculated success in such a short period of time was a collaborative effort that began with the creation of a new position on campus, the vice provost for undergraduate studies who was tasked with focusing on student success, retention and graduation rates, and teaming up with representatives from across the university to create a five-year plan for promoting student success, which touched upon everything from advising and class structure to how the university awarded scholarships.
Researchers were able to pinpoint several factors that influence retention rates: first semester GPA, how well students performed in core math and English classes and whether or not students lived on campus are positively related to retention, while withdrawing from a course during the first term or having higher levels of unmet financial need are negatively associated with retention.
Tackling these factors was the next step. The plan began with beefing up Boise State’s new student orientation and advising process. Advisors were hired and marketed to freshmen, who were required for the first time to meet with someone before registering for classes, and a dashboard created that advisors could monitor for areas of concern. If enough “concerns” pop up on the dashboard – for instance, if a student registers late, has a known financial need, and gets a bad grade in select courses – advisors are prompted to reach out to the students. (In some departments, such as engineering, advising staff proactively reaches out to every single major each year, regardless.) This change has benefitted not only Idaho residents, it’s helping grow the Treasure Valley with an educated, young transplant population the size of which this area has never before experienced.
“We’ve found that 44 percent of out-of-state students are now staying in the area” for at least one year after graduation, Schimpf said.
In addition to implementing a team of proactive advisors, plans for increasing our residence hall accommodations were drafted. Administrators then launched Boise State’s ambitious Finish in Four program, which guarantees freshmen that if they work with an academic advisor and don’t finish their degree in four years, Boise State will pay for the remainder of their courses.
With help from campus leaders like Francisco Salinas, director of student diversity and inclusion, and student groups like Organizacion de Estudiantes Latino Americanos (OELA), the university was able to strengthen its outreach for minority and first-generation students. Boise State currently has nearly 1,800 Latino students, including over 550 Latino students who were new to campus last fall. Salinas helps organize an annual Hispanic Youth Summit on campus for high school students, while OELA hosts Project Dream for Tomorrow, an annual campus event that helps lessen the anxiety of going to college for Latino high school students, many of whom are the first in their families to enroll in higher education. Programs like these help educate students on financial aid and scholarships, how to apply for college, and even what classes they should be taking in their senior year of high school to prepare for college.
The university also transformed how it handled core classes like English 101.
“Our research showed that one key indicator of student success was how well you did in your English 101 class,” Schimpf said. “We are now making students more successful in English through programs like English 101 plus, which is designed for students who don’t test into 101 because of their reading or writing skills.”
Normally, these students would instead take English 090, which is a noncredit, remedial English class. However, students reported feeling discouraged by being in a remedial class – not only did it hurt their confidence in the classroom, many felt further frustrated by being enrolled in a noncredit class. To some, it sent the message, “You’re not ready for college.”
“With English 101 plus, we added an extra hour on to the class time so students could stay an extra hour and get extra help, while still earning credit for their work,” Schimpf explained. “By integrating remediation in a credit-bearing course, the message is, ‘You are okay. We can get you on track to graduate in four years.’ We’re committed at Boise State of doing more of this work.”
Another key piece of the puzzle was how the university handled scholarships. “The scholarship campaign started a few years ago was a recognition that the number one reason for students dropping out is financial,” Schimpf said.
The university launched the True Blue Promise campaign in 2015. It awards eligible Idaho students $2,000 per year for four years, and is based both on financial need and academic performance.
“The True Blue scholarships are helping us to close the gap in retention between Pell eligible students and the rest of our student body,” Schimpf said.
The university also began offering two-year scholarships to incoming freshmen (as opposed to a one-year scholarship). This gives students financial security for the first two years, after which students can compete for their individual department grants, which donors typically target with their donations.
Not only can students now confidently plot a four-year path for scholarships, “Under our new budget model being developed this year, departments are incentivized to get students, retain them and graduate them, as it affects their budget,” Schimpf explained. “It sets up a structure that incentivizes student success on the part of faculty and staff.”
The role that faculty and staff play in student success also is vital. These are the relationships and mentorships that inspire students to learn, let alone choose a career path that they find fulfilling. “All of our work impacts students,” Ellertson said. “Retention is everyone’s job.”
While Boise State has made significant strides in student retention since 2007, Schimpf noted that our work is not over. Five years ago, Boise State’s strategic plan established specific five-year targets of increasing retention of freshmen and transfer students to 80 percent, and the six-year graduation rate to 50 percent (for comparison, the six-year graduation rate for our peer universities is 43 percent).