SC colleges and universities work to boost retention

The Taiko Charleston drummers entertain students as they take part at an ice cream social Wendesay, Aug. 21, 2013 at The College of Charleston.The event was held to help new students get to know each other and get connected to campus life. Such events help students to remain on campus until they graduate, school leaders say. Paul Zoeller/Staff Buy this photo

Osiris Jones hit a few rough patches during his first year at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, like many college freshmen away from home for the first time.

Freshman to sophomore retention rate*

Clemson University 91.3 %

College of Charleston 81.4 %

Francis Marion University 65.2 %

Lander University 60.8 %

S.C. State University 61.3 %

The Citadel 83.4 %

USC-Aiken 67.5 %

USC-Beaufort 50.1 %

USC-Columbia 87.2 %

USC-Upstate 66.3 %

Winthrop University 72.8 %

*First-time, full-time freshmen who enrolled in the fall of 2011 and returned as sophomores in the fall of 2012

S.C. Commision on Higher Education

When he struggled with a math class, the Simpsonville native went to the university’s Student Success Center for help. And the skills he learned there carried over to other classes. “It wasn’t just about the grade,” Jones said. “They taught me how to learn.”

Graduation rates*

Clemson University 81.6 %

College of Charleston 68.8 %

Francis Marion University 42.5 %

Lander University 40.5 %

S.C. State University 34.3 %

The Citadel 65.8 %

USC-Aiken 42.9 %

USC-Beaufort 22.5 %

USC-Columbia 72.4 %

USC-Upstate 37.5 %

Winthrop University 53.2 %

*6-year graduation rate for students who began as first-time, full-time freshmen in the fall of 2006

S.C. Commission on Higher Education

Staffers at the center also helped him sort out problems with financial aid and housing, assistance he credits with helping him successfully complete his freshman year and begin his sophomore year with confidence late last month.

Just as students like Jones are learning more about what it takes to succeed in college, university staffers in recent years have learned more about what it takes to help them.

Many college and university leaders once focused largely on helping students gain access to higher education. But now, they know they also must help students all the way through to graduation. And that involves academic assistance as well as help with financial, emotional and social issues.

In the past, college leaders at gatherings of newly arrived freshmen would sometimes ask students to take a look at the person on their right, said Gene Luna, USC’s associate vice president for student affairs. Then, they would say that one of the two students likely wouldn’t be there on graduation day. “We don’t do that anymore. We want students to succeed,” Luna said. “We’ve moved beyond survival of the fittest.”

Keeping freshmen


The largest percentage of students who leave before graduating do so during or after their freshman year, said Kay Smith, associate vice president for the academic experience at the College of Charleston. That’s why the freshman to sophomore retention rate is so important.

Students leave school for many reasons, she said, including: poor grades, loneliness and lack of connection to campus life, a bad fit between the student and the particular college, and lack of money. It’s important to help them engage in campus life early, she said. Being connected to campus life is essential for retention.

Jim Posey, the college’s associate vice president for institutional research, said the school’s graduation rate, which currently is 68.8 percent, is on the upswing. But its freshman to sophomore retention rate has remained flat at 81.4 percent.

To remedy that, Smith said, the college last year started requiring students to participate in a first-year experience program, which is designed to get them engaged in academics and campus life. In the program, students take a course related to their major with one of the school’s top professors. And the group of students in that course is assigned a peer facilitator who helps the students with other concerns, such as how to use the library.

The college has to take a multifaceted approach to retaining students, Posey said. “There is no singular answer to why students leave. They are spread across the board.”

Eric Moschella, director of USC’s Success Center, said freshmen accepted at USC-Columbia should have the ability to succeed academically, but some are not accustomed to the academic rigor of college coursework. Starting this year, he said, every freshman is assigned a “success coach” who helps each student with his or her individual needs.

That helps students get connected, Luna said. “One of the biggest barriers is just not getting plugged in.”

For freshmen, Luna said, that can be a bigger problem than money for students on the Columbia campus, where most of them received merit-based, state lottery-funded scholarships. Financial barriers often enter the picture later, if students don’t maintain their grades and lose the scholarships, he said.

Money


While money may not be the biggest barrier to retention for freshmen at USC’s Columbia campus, it definitely is the primary reason students don’t complete a degree at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, said Thomas Elzey, the school’s new president.

He’s certain problems the school has suffered, such as indictments against its former board chairman and chief of police and warnings from its accrediting agency, have contributed to some students not returning to the school. But he estimates that 75 percent of students who left school did so because they simply ran out of money.

More than 90 percent of S.C. State students are eligible for federal Pell grants, which go only to students from families with lower incomes.

Elzey said he plans first to clear up accreditation issues, which were for problems with governance and leadership, not academic deficiencies. “That will put the university on standing with other universities,” he said.

Then, he said, the university will launch a campaign to raise money for scholarships. “Small balances get in the way,” he said. A shortfall of $500 or $1,000 easily could keep a student from returning to campus. “For many students, that’s a lot of money.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

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