Student success model improves early retention rate

By PAT BOWDEN Reporter

Enrollment data released Sept. 21 reveals that the South Dakota State University retention rate from freshman to sophomore year increased 3.6 percent.

The retention rate improved from 75 percent to 78.6 percent since 2013. This increase was the goal of the student success model, instigated to reduce the amount of students leaving SDSU without a degree.

The goal is to keep the freshman to sophomore retention rate at 80 percent as part of South Dakota State’s Impact 2018 strategic plan.

Although the freshman to sophomore retention rate just increased, SDSU officials are working to better understand dropout factors and ways to retain more students through an analytical program, called the Student Success Collaborative. Officials also plan to improve the sophomore to junior retention rate.

This model applies to all students who apply at SDSU. However, the school is also working to implement the Education Advisory Board program SSC. This program will combine all success and dropout factors from advisers and faculty into a unified system.

Currently, SDSU uses an EAB program called Foundation and the early alert system Starfish. These work as separate entities to flag those at risk of dropping out. The SSC will essentially combine these platforms this coming spring semester.

In turn, the SSC will better equip advisers to help students find their place on campus and get them in a major that fits them according to their skill sets, said Interim Provost Dennis Hedge.

“We’re in the process now of getting more analytical with that [who is dropping out] … the Student Success Collaborative will primarily be utilized by advisers but will also allow us to take a deeper dive into data to look at students who are dropping out or falling behind in regards to completing a degree in a major,” Hedge said.

The program’s intent is to support the retention of students. This is also the goal of early integration, which has been important in long-term success for students completing their degrees at SDSU.

“Freshman to sophomore year [retention rates] are sought out as a significant milestone to long-term academic success … retaining a student from freshman to sophomore year is huge,” Hedge said. “The longer a student stays on a college campus the more likely they are to graduate.”

This retention rate has been a key vision for the university officials when putting together this success model. But there are some issues related to drop out rates that are out of the university’s control said Michaela Willis, vice president of Student Affairs.

These reasons include a cultural reason, family member with an illness or  mental health issue.

Willis does not believe any of these problems are unsolvable –in fact, she believes any student with any of these problems can be successful.

“[These issues are], not to generalize it, any student in any of those categories can be successful,” Willis said.

Other potential issues that would be out of the university’s control include entering parenthood, losing a job or being a first-generation college student, according to Willis.  

Willis believes first generation college students –– those who have not had a previous family member attend college –– can have a significantly harder time adapting to a new environment.

“[First generation college students] don’t have someone at home helping guide them through college. None of their family members have ever been to college so they don’t see the value in it –– they don’t see the stress that adds to the transition to a new place … I can only imagine how difficult that might be,” Willis said.

Being a first generation college student is not rated in the top-six impactful reasons why students drop out, according to the Center for Institutional Data Exchange and Analysis.

The top six reasons are: academic preparation, low financial need from family, financial aid not met above 55 percent, social interaction, academic major and low financial-need gifts.

From this list, half of the reasons for a student to drop out are due to financial complications.

“We do know nationally that students are struggling to pay for education … so there’s kind of that squeeze there,” said Carolyn Halgerson, director of financial aid.  “Students and families are needing to plan and prepare –– and they are.”

Another reason for student dropouts is the inability to connect to their major of study or to the school itself.

“A key indicator is progression toward a degree … student success is something that occurs over an extended continuum from landing on campus, and there are a variety of initiatives that we have [to help early success],” Hedge said.

Progression toward a degree is when a student continually takes 12 to 15 credit hours a semester, according to Hedge, who calls this regular credit rate “magical.”

These early initiatives to help early student success are designed to better associate students with campus life and get them more involved. The first year programs implemented to do this include: Meet State, ThumpStart, the Common Read, the First-Year Advising Center, First Year Seminars, Exploratory Studies, Residence Hall Programs and Living-Learning Communities.

“The first year adviser model helps ensure more continuity and students success. Exploratory studies helps students identify a major with their passion,” Hedge said.

Looking into the future, Willis hopes the retention rate from freshman to sophomore year will increase and recognizes that more factors go into this retention than just the success model.

On a similar note, Willis also believes the university will need to start focusing on sophomore to junior retention since SDSU’s rate is 58.3 percent.

“The big conversation piece needs to be not only retention but graduation,” Willis said. “While freshman to sophomore [retention] is important, we’re losing another 20 percent after that sophomore year, so that’s where that conversation will evolve.”

Willis believes the school will naturally get to this point of focus once underclassmen retention rate is fixed at a higher point.

She said “sophomore to junior is something we need to look at … it’s just as critical.”