Nathanial Garrod, Portland State University
In efforts to provide active support for retaining first-time, full-time freshmen, the School of Business Administration at Portland State University (PSU) decided to hire a full-time advisor dedicated to supporting this population. The purpose of the First Year Programs Advisor was to research the needs of the freshmen population, manage and analyze retention data, and develop advising-based programs and resources (as well as last-minute, drop-in advising) that meet the needs of those students. This article will summarize the research done on retention and the programs developed out of that research.
Step One: Research
Research was important to this program and process for two reasons. First, the advising team wanted to know more about what initiatives and programs exist in other universities. It was important to explore what was successful at peer institutions and why. The other reason was that no matter what was happening at other schools, what amazing programs existed and what looked perfect in a different environment, we ultimately needed to understand our students and their needs.
What we already knew about PSU is that our students largely come from the Portland metropolitan area, and many of them choose to stay at home and continue the jobs that they had prior to admittance to the University. Students get to campus via cars, public transit, bike, and foot. Living on-campus is not the default assumption with our students. We cannot always assume students will be on-campus (or even downtown), which means planning activities, events, and advising sessions close to or around classes. The average age of our students is 26, the university population is about 27,000, and 2/3 of our students are transfer students from local community colleges and other universities.
The research done for program development started a review with the foundation of retention theory. The writings of Vincent Tinto, the original author of the body of theory that exists around retention, stopping out, and dropping out, talk a lot about not continuing at the university as a process. This means that no student just wakes up one day and decides “I’m done here,” but instead has this range of experiences that eventually moves the student to a point where they just cannot continue.
Classic writing on stopping out actually compares it to suicide and pulls from a lot of the older writing on that topic. Tinto (1975) suggests that if a student feels like they are academically and socially integrated with the university, they will persist. That means that our students have to feel like they belong in the classroom and outside of the classroom. This is something that looks a little different at a commuter school, where the classroom is seen as the SOLE reason to be on-campus.
Davidson and Wilson (2013) review studies on retention from Tinto’s original study in 1975 to studies in 2013. This comparison shows how the focus of the research has changed over time. Focus on variables in personal background and environment develops over time. In their implications, Davidson and Wilson state the “conflation of the definitions of social and academic integration make it difficult to draw clear conclusions that might be applicable to practice.” Ultimately, they state that relationships matter, but students do not always pursue them. Sometimes relationships have to be built on things like advising or providing support to goals and growth.
Ultimately when looking at data and research, the conclusion that we came to is that we are really good at providing academic support, but a feeling of community is hard to access. So we focused on creating connections in a few different ways.
Step Two: Data Management
Using numbers to tell the students’ stories can seem reductive and like it completely discounts the lived experiences of our students who have not had positive experiences. Numbers feel like a way of muting the challenge and frustration of our students who have stopped out of the university. In fact, the opposite is true. When we are able to quantify that not just one student has had a challenge or problem, that we have 26 students who transferred to another in-state school because they like that name more/because they were nicer/because it is what family expects/because they got a scholarship, it shows department leadership that there is a significant need which needs to be filled.
For data management, the First Year Programs Advisor keeps all of our data on freshmen students in an excel sheet. The first tab is a dashboard overview of retention. It includes the cohort of first-time, full-time freshmen, as well as some sub-populations we track: minority students, students in various mentor programs, and students who have taken specific elective coursework. This dashboard is also used to track retention in other departments for comparison.
The next tab is a collection of Student ID numbers for the various sub-populations, so that any time the First Year Programs Advisor needs to gather any set of data on the students in that population, it is easily accessible.
The third tab is for tracking how many students are registered on a given day so that the School of Business Deans can compare current registration to previous years. The intention is that with a few years of this data, we can be a lot more predictive.
Finally, we keep track of who has told us they will not be returning for courses at PSU and why they are not returning. This is to do intentional outreach to determine if there is anything we can do in the future to prevent students from dropping out for similar reasons.
Step Three: Outreach
Outreach is key. We broke outreach into a few phases. The First Year Programs Advisor coordinated an initiative with Academic Advisors to make phone calls early in the Fall term, letting these students know that we are available for them and want to help. Any student that we left a voicemail for and did not hear back from, we followed up with an email.
The next step was to have our advisors hand-write cards for all freshmen. This was just a quick note right after mid-terms to remind students that we appreciate them and know the first term can be hard.
Right around registration time, we start another round of phone calls—this one to ask students if they know what they are planning to register for.
Step Four: Community Development
Since a large volume of our research demonstrated that community is what our students need, the First Year Programs Advisor took on a few tasks to help build community. The intent in program design was to create opportunities to engage at a range of levels, from very large non-personal interactions to relationship building.
Welcome Week. At the beginning of every term, we set up a table in the lobby of the School of Business academic building. The table has advising resources, fliers on course offerings that faculty want to be more widely known, and a computer to schedule an advising appointment. Additionally, it is staffed by a student who knows the building well and is trained to answer any common questions that come up. To make the space more exciting, we hang inviting banners, decorate with balloons, and (for that special bit of excitement) buy coffee and donuts for our students to pick up at any time during the week.
To keep momentum going after the first week of the term, we invite all student organizations associated with our majors to come table with us. This gives them an opportunity to really engage with friends—new and old—and build their organizations.
Community Mixer. The Community Mixer was created as a solution to a number of challenges the School of Business faced: we wanted students to feel more connected to each other and to faculty, we wanted to instill pride in their institution, and we wanted all of these things to impact retention. So we created an event where we invited students, faculty, and staff to come spend time together, to mix and mingle and chat. Think about the combination of happy hour and a party, but more formal. The first time we did this, we purchased food from campus catering to serve about 100 attendees, and it was all gone in less than half an hour. The second time, we tripled the order and it went just as quickly. Collaborating with others in our department, we acquire prizes from businesses in the region that we are connected to, which we raffle off.
Peer Mentor Program. The Peer Mentor Program is the most focused community building activity we have started. We invite freshmen to sign up for the program at and after orientation. The post-orientation outreach is done by phone calls from a student worker in the advising office. When students sign up for the Peer Mentor Program, they are sorted into small groups led by a student who has completed a year at Portland State.
The peer mentors meet with their small group every other week to chat about pressing issues related to their college transition. These range from “how to work in a group project,” to “how to deal with failure.” We also provide opportunities for students in the Peer Mentor Program to engage with other mentor groups through social events like an Ice Cream Social and Bowling Night.
The peer mentors also meet one-on-one with each of their students to discuss how their lives are going and to build strong relationships. The idea is that through these interactions and the small group interactions, students will find connections to others in their department through similar interests, goals, and challenges.
The overall experience of providing support for retention has been engaging and challenging. The data management and outreach pieces have given us more of an idea where our weaknesses are when it comes to retaining students. We have the best data on why students stop out that we have ever had. We plan to implement a survey using $20 Amazon gift cards for all stop-out students to continue to grow this set of data and understand why students are leaving. Understanding this data better will help us identify students who have the potential for leaving and how to support them through their first year.
The community engagement piece has also grown and strengthened relationships. After a year and a half we already have a population of students that know to expect the Community Mixer. One of the Peer Mentors in the programs second year was a mentee during the first year. Halfway through the second year, we are seeing 100% retention of students who participated in the program in the fall term
It has been a good experience to try new tactics that we had not considered before and to expand our programs and services.
First Year Programs Advisor
School of Business Administration
Portland State University
Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45(1). 89-125.
Davidson, C., & Wilson, K. (2013). Reassessing Tinto’s concepts of social and academic integration in student retention. Journal of College Student Retention, 15(3). 329-246.
Cite this article using APA style as: Garrod, N. (2017, March). The first year of developing a retention program. Academic Advising Today, 40(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]