Allegheny begins to improve focus on first-year experience

Allegheny’s Board of Trustees participated in a study with the Gardner Institute, helping them to find answers about why Allegheny is not retaining students as much as the college has in the past.

The Gardner Institute is an organization that helps colleges around the country to participate in a data driven study, referred to as Retention Performance Management on the Institute’s website.

At the February 2019 Board of Trustees meeting, the data results from the study were discussed, and now the members of the board and campus community plan to focus on improving the first year experience to help retain students as they move into sophomore year, according to Camila Gomez, ’19, president of Allegheny Student Government, who discussed the findings of the meeting with ASG members at the last general assembly meeting.

“(The study) found many interesting indicators,” Gomez said. “One of those indicators was first- years that live with all other first-years retain better, which is obviously the reason why now all first-years are housed together, so that’s one recommendation that’s already been implemented.”

Gomez said that first-year GPA was also a big indicator of whether or not students would stay. Other findings included female students retaining better than male students, and students with D grades or lower tend to retain less. Another change as a result of the study is that the departments with early classes that are typically seen as being harder for students are starting to change the way those courses are taught in order to help students.

“Psych 110 is an example of an early class that students tend to struggle in,” Gomez said. “The early chemistries, even early math have been differentiators between whether or not a student continues into their second semester.”

A student who lives in a cohort, whether that is a sports team, club, Greek Life or living in a Living Learning Community, also helps to make students more likely to stay all four years, according to Gomez.

Ron Cole, provost and dean of the college, also said that there is evidence to support that students who become members of a cohort are more likely to retain better, and that there are a lot of plans for actions in the works, but most of it is still in the design stage.

“There are many changes in the works and plans being made to help first-year students academically, including a more holistic advising plan for first-years, but most of it is still being evaluated,” Cole said.

In an email to The Campus, President James Mullen said that the retention work done on campus is as important as any other work done at the college.

“The student experience is fundamental to all we do, and high performance related to retention is an important measure of student success at Allegheny,” Mullen wrote. “For that reason, I believe that continuing the work outlined through our collaboration with Gardner is critically important and is a responsibility of all of us in the Faculty, Staff and Administration.”

Cole expressed that, to his knowledge, this was the college’s first time working with the Gardner Institute, but the college has always been worried about first-year retention and trying to improve experience for them.

“The Gardner Institute provides a method or structure for schools to help address first-year retention,” Cole said. “It’s kind of like a coach or consultant that helps us to set our own recommendations on how to improve our retention after this data driven process.”

Along the lines of changes already being made or evaluated, a lot of focus has been on extracurriculars and housing.

“The college is already investigating making Crawford into another first-year living space,” Gomez said. “That’s not certain, but is a consideration. Certain departments are doing self studies to help make better pathways or more logical pathways for students who may not immediately jump in and succeed.”

Better tutoring programs and counseling are also in the works along with the strengthening of LLCs, the changes made to student orientation last summer, new plans for first year advising and completion grants.

Rick Holmgren, vice president for information services and assessment, and justin adkins, associate dean of students, director of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Social Justice Center co-led the Gardner Institute project.

“Every handful of years we take a close look at our retention and see where we’re at,” adkins said. “This was one of those opportunities and we decided to work with the Gardner Institute and use some of the tools that they have to assist us in our work.”

Holmgren described one of the main duties that he and adkins had to undertake, facilitating the data transfer to the Gardner Institute for this project.

“Institutional Research is an area that reports to me, and they manage a lot of the data we have around students and student success,” Holmgren said. “So I spent a lot of time with the Institutional Research Office, helping them and Ian Binnington, the Registrar, get data to the Gardner Institute folks to help us understand where to make changes and what to focus our energy on.”

Holmgren explained that the college’s retention has fluctuated over the years, but is down more than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

“Retention rates used to be quite high, and have begun to decline in the last years,” Holmgren said. “What we’re really looking to do is to get it back up to where we were, so that’s what this project has really been focused on.”

According to Holmgren, who has been working on retention projects for almost 20 years, the results were good to show people what the issues are.

“Now they are just committed to helping us do better,” Holmgren said.

Gomez added that not so much on the academic side, but focusing on the transition side of things also needs to be a big factor.

“I was not one of those students who was struggling in the classroom,” Gomez said. “Where I really struggled was outside of the classroom, and it was my experience outside of the classroom that made me consider leaving Allegheny.”

Gomez said that her social experience and transition could have been a lot smoother, and that a lot of people she’s talked to have shared similar experiences.

“Of course there are people who struggle in the classroom, and they can usually get a handle on it,” Gomez said. “What’s really difficult is if you’re in a situation where you feel isolated, or where people already have their friend groups and you’re kind of just floating, those are feelings that I think are very common for first-years.”

Though she was not completely sure how to address this problem, Gomez said that the residential hall plans would help, but there may be more that can to be done.

“I’m not sure, but I think that that would be something interesting to investigate moving forward,” Gomez said. “A lot of the suggestions have been academic, so I’d be interested in seeing if there were any social things we could do that would help.”

When it comes to actions and initiatives being taken since the study was done, adkins said both he and Holmgren are involved in most of the plans and actions being made.

Gomez said that the funding for some overnight programs have been cut, and that schedules would have to be moved around for events to be spread out more, and work needs to be done on advertising to be more appealing to first-year students.

“Maybe one Friday night there’s four events, and that Friday night you want to go to all four,” Gomez said. “And the next Friday night there could be none you want to go to. (We just want to) create a balance where there’s always something for someone.”   

Holmgren explained that it is not possible to do a retention report until a student has been on campus for over fourteen months.

“So some of what we’re looking at is from students who’ve graduated,” Holmgren said. “One of the things that I’m really excited about, is that I can feel on the campus that we’ve turned a corner with early preliminary data, which you always have to be careful with. Things change and they don’t always happen as you expect them to, but if I had to predict, I think we’ll see already an improvement in retention for this year’s class, because we’re already seeing an improvement in student experience.”

Holmgren expressed his feelings that it is a great time to be at Allegheny, and adkins agreed, saying he is excited for the place that the college is at.

“Our retention has been dropping over the last handful of years,” adkins said. “But I’m excited about the changes that we’ve already put into place. And it’s exciting to me (to see) the people we have sitting around the table, the faculty, students and staff. I think it’s an exciting time to be at Allegheny with all of us working together, and I think this project was a good example of that.”