By Elizabeth A. Davis
If you visit your alma mater, you may notice some aspects of college life haven’t changed very much. Students scurry to class—except now most of them are talking on cell phones. Students still study late into the night, but they may stay awake by drinking a Starbucks coffee in the library.
If you look a little closer at the programs offered on campuses now, you may notice a big change in the University of Tennessee’s attitude toward students.
Over the past few years, there has been a vigorous and growing effort to increase the number of freshmen who stay for their sophomore year and eventually graduate.
Better advising, class-attendance tracking, tutoring, special freshman seminars, and learning communities are among the tools UT’s campuses in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Martin are using to help students.
With the passage in January of the Governor’s Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010, all public universities in Tennessee are paying more attention to student success and retention, which refers to the number of freshmen who remain for their sophomore year.
The new law changes the way state funding is awarded to higher education. Now, funding is based on outcomes—graduation and retention, for example—instead of strictly on enrollment.
“UT has been advocating for changes in funding and measurement in higher education that reward what I call ‘throughput,’” says Jan Simek, UT interim president.
UT Knoxville has the highest graduation rate of the state’s public 4-year institutions at 57.8 percent, and the goal is to reach 80 percent. The graduation rate is the percentage of students who graduate within 6 years, the same calculation used in all states.
UT Martin’s graduation rate is 48.5 percent, and UT Chattanooga’s is 39.6 percent. The goal for those campuses is 60 percent.
“Meeting these ambitious goals is a tough challenge, but we must, and we will get there,” Simek says.
Aside from the new state law, achieving these goals will help the university fulfill its mission as the state’s land-grant institution.
“It’s important to provide access and to help students persist and graduate in a timely way, and we are already making progress,” says Bonnie Yegidis, UT vice-president for academic affairs and student success. “We are all concerned about the implications of improvement from the creation of jobs to the overall well-being of the state.”
For years, the state of Tennessee has lagged in the number of college graduates. Of Tennessee adults aged 25 to 64, only 21.4 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, placing the state 42nd in the nation.
Larger numbers of college graduates in a population increase economic development and quality of life, and college graduates who are parents pass on to their children the idea that college is important and worthwhile.
These days, universities and colleges are more accountable for providing the best possible experience for students. And with the emergence of Tennessee’s HOPE scholarship, more students have an incentive to attend UT’s three undergraduate campuses.
Focusing on the First Year
But before students start thinking about resumes and job interviews, they need to think about going to class. Attendance is now a big component of retention at UT Chattanooga.
“When I was in college, it was up to us as individuals. We made it or we didn’t. We were expected to graduate in four years and we did,” says Fran Bender, assistant provost for student retention and success, who has taught at UTC for more than 30 years.
“Now students graduate and can’t find a job. There is confusion on how to prepare for jobs, and parents want their investment to pay off,” she says.
Bender’s position was created in 2008 when UTC administrators saw that the institution’s retention rate had dropped from 74 percent to 60 percent over the preceding 10 years. And UTC’s graduation rate is the lowest among UT campuses.
“We can’t get them to graduate if they don’t become sophomores,” Bender says.
Already, UTC has made progress, with the retention rate back up to 67 percent, heading for a goal of 80 percent.
She believes the new Freshman Academic Success Tracking (FAST) program has made a difference. Last year, the English Department tested the program and kept track of freshmen attending classes.
Instructors flagged students after they missed more than two classes, which generated an e-mail to the student from Bender stressing the need to go to class. Students who lived on campus also got a visit from their residence hall directors. This year, FAST was expanded to all freshman classes.
“We are hoping to change the campus culture so that you go to class if you come to UTC. That’s what successful students do,” Bender says.
The next big push at UTC is improved advising, starting with freshman orientation. Each freshman visits with an assigned advisor at least twice a semester. The campus has hired more advisors to help with the advising load.
One of the best predictors of retention is how engaged a student is on campus.
“Students need to realize going to college is their forty-hour job,” says George Daniel, director of the Student Success Center at UT Martin. “If a student will engage that first semester, they’re ready to rock ’n’ roll.”
Different Regions Require Different Solutions
UT Martin’s retention has been holding steady around 70 percent for the last 5 years with the latest rate at 72 percent.
First-generation college students make up about 40 percent of Martin’s enrollment, and about 80 percent of its students are from rural areas in West Tennessee.
Administrators encourage students to be proactive and seek out help when they need it. “Sometimes they don’t know they don’t know,” Daniel says.
UT Martin has a first-year initiative that includes summer orientation, welcome weekend, and General Studies 101 classes during the fall semester.
These classes are small, about 25 students, and are taught by a faculty member assisted by older students called Pep leaders. Pep leaders compete for their position —110 students were chosen from 231 applicants who averaged a 3.44 GPA.
“These are the folks who have figured out how to be successful,” Daniel says. “We want them to tell their stories.”
Next spring, UT Martin plans to expand the Pep leader program. These students will become peer coaches and will help build a bridge from fall classes to the spring semester, offering more advice and support for freshmen.
Some of UT Martin’s students get a head start before they become freshmen. Of the freshmen who will enter next fall, 35 percent will have taken college-level classes in high school for dual-enrollment credit. Some students enter college a semester or even a year ahead of their classmates.
VolWalk of Life
Sometimes students, however, just don’t know where to go for help or even that there is a place to get help.
UT Knoxville senior Drew Webb noticed this lack of awareness, and through the Student Government Association, he helped organize a campus event last February to inform students about sources of help.
“It takes a proactive student to succeed,” Webb says. “If you really want the help, you can find it, but sometimes students forget, or they don’t know about the available resources.”
Hundreds of students attended the “VolWalk of Life,” where campus offices and organizations like the Student Success Center set up booths and answered questions.
Basketball coaches Pat Summitt and Bruce Pearl appeared, urging students to make an effort to get to know their professors, attend class, sit up front, and seek out help. Summitt shared some advice she provided her son, Tyler, who now attends UT Knoxville.
“I will help you,” she said, “but you have to start your own engine. You have to bring it!”
A task force studying retention at UT Knoxville, where the retention rate increased from 78 percent 5 years ago to 84 percent this year, reported that:
- UTK students study less than students at similar institutions.
- More than half of students surveyed who earned a 2.0 GPA or less their first year said they “underestimated college” and did not study enough.
- The top three reasons students left were “UTK is too large and impersonal,” “I had trouble adjusting to UTK,” and “I did not feel I fit in at UTK.”
Several programs are helping change the campus culture, with major emphasis on the freshman experience. Freshman orientation now focuses more on academics, allowing students more time to choose their classes, meet with advisors, and talk about long-range planning.
Small freshman seminar classes on special and sometimes off-beat topics allow students to interact with top faculty members and meet other students.
Another feature to keep UT Knoxville students from feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size of the campus is the learning communities, where students with shared interests live and attend some classes together.
There also are peer-led study groups to help freshmen through some of the toughest classes, and those freshmen with a GPA below 2.0 are required to attend academic success workshops.
Though students are encouraged to explore different topics in college, being undecided about a major can slow their progress toward graduation. Now students with fewer than 30 hours or those who are undecided about a major are required to see an advisor every semester instead of once a year.
To help freshmen transition to sophomores and continue their progress, UT Knoxville has begun the “Learn more, achieve more, sophoMORE” program. Associate Vice Provost Ruth Darling, who headed up the retention task force and works with the UTK Student Success Center, enjoys speaking to parents—particularly UT alumni—at freshman orientation.
“Parents often say, ‘We never had anything like this at UT,'” Darling says. “We get great feedback from parents.”