UAA makes the grade on retention

Every year on college campuses there is a bit of hubbub over the total enrollment of the school, especially at schools that are growing like UAA. But a more important stat for UAA administrators is the retention of first-year, full-time, baccalaureate degree-seeking students.

Many students who start in a higher education program drop out prior to completing a degree, according to the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice. Over the years colleges have spent vast amounts of money setting up programs and services for a variety of groups who will attend their college and may be in need of extra services to develop the necessary skills to graduate. Retaining students is a top priority of colleges and universities.

So once students come to UAA, do they stick around?

According to the latest statistics released by the university, nearly 70 percent of 788 fall 2003 freshmen came back in fall 2004.

So if UAA got graded for retention of first-year, full-time students, what would the report card look like?

Initially, you might think a C would be a fitting grade. Heck, if professors get to mark up our term papers, let’s be hard on the university.

The 69.7 percent 2004 retention rate is something the UAA administration is proud of because it is nearly three percent better than last year’s 66.8 percent. Plus, the 2004 retention met the goal UAA had set for fiscal year 2009. So, by university projections, we’re five years ahead of schedule.

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But are the UAA prognosticators aiming too low? Who else thinks it’s “fuzzy math” to say that getting 70 of every 100 freshmen back is a success?

With the current dorms just opened, UAA managed to keep just 57.7 percent freshmen on board in fall 1998 from the previous year. That means we’ve come a long way and a closer look at state and national retention trends show that UAA might not be too far off with its numbers for the future.

Alaska’s flagship campus, UAF, reported a 70 percent retention rate of first-time, full-time, baccalaureate degree-seeking students from fall 2002 to fall 2003. So at least we are on par with our neighbors to the north now.

At Arizona State University West, where UAA Chancellor Elaine Maimon was provost before coming to Anchorage, freshmen retention was 75 percent from fall 2002 to fall 2003. Hopefully, she brings with her some of the success experienced there.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Center for Educational Statistics, only 50 percent of those who enter higher education actually earn a bachelors degree. That is in spite of all of the programs and services to help retain students. Put in real numbers, about 2,800,000 students will graduate from high school this year, 1,850,000 will attend college and only 925,000 of these students will earn a bachelor degree. That means UAA must be doing better than C work in regards to retention.

UAA’s recent retention success was bolstered by large jumps in minority students staying in Anchorage. Asian student retention saw a huge shift from 64.9 percent in 2003 to 86.2 percent this fall. Black and Hispanic student retention is up from 57.1 percent and 65.5 percent, respectively, to 70.8 percent.

The only ethnic group that didn’t see growth was American Indian and Alaska Native students, which saw a drop from 58.5 percent last year to 57.5 percent in 2004. That is an alarming figure amongst all the positive numbers in the retention data. UAA has made efforts to keep minority students here, with the creation of AHAINA Student Programs and Native Student Services. Not to slight those programs but it is apparent that more needs to be done.

What is the solution? Better outreach to new students especially Alaska Natives. To the university’s credit, they didn’t hide behind their improved overall retention numbers. Instead the UAA press release acknowledged “there is still much to be done.” Recognizing the issue is the first step towards correcting it.

Chancellor Maimon continually mentions improving UAA’s sense of community and she is passionate about retention. Let’s hope that by this time next year we’re lauding Maimon and UAA for further improvements in retention. Otherwise the grades might not be so favorable.