Region’s colleges and universities set goal to boost student retention by 2024

John Swallow, president of Carthage College and HERA chair

Last updated on March 22nd, 2022 at 02:05 pm

As part of a larger goal to close achievement gaps in the region, southeastern Wisconsin’s colleges and universities recently announced their collective goal to increase student retention rates.

The Higher Education Regional Alliance, a group composed of the region’s 18 colleges and institutions, has set a combined goal over the next two years of increasing by six percentage points the rate of students re-enrolling from one year to the next.

Better retention benefits colleges, students and the region. For schools, high retention rates mean more consistent tuition dollars and a boost to their reputation. Students who graduate have access to more and better-paying careers and therefore are better positioned to pay off student debt. And there’s a well-documented need in the region for workers with college degrees.

“It’s really in everyone’s interest for retention to be as high as we can possibly make it,” said HERA chair and Carthage College president John Swallow.

While graduation rates are also an important metric to track, HERA is narrowing in on retention rates as a way to measure improvement in student success more immediately.

“When we measure first- and second-year retention, every year we have another class and we could have different policies, procedures, approaches and financial aid, so we ought to be able to move that number more quickly,” Swallow said.

Across all HERA institutions, retention rates for the fall 2020 cohort was 70.9%. The goal is to raise that to 76.9% for the fall 2023 cohort (reflected in the 2024 retention rate). That would amount to 700 additional students retained.

To realize the overall goal, each institution has set individualized “aspirational yet reasonable” targets that, averaged out, equals a six-percentage-point increase, Swallow said.

“We have been exploring national models and trading information locally on how to improve retention, (such as) retention grants, hold policies,” he said. “But with data we had and then the tools that we believe we can now deploy, it was time (to ask): What do we intend to achieve in the next few years? And retention should be one of those things that we can choose well-informed targets for.”

Carthage, in particular, wants to raise its first-to-second-year retention rate from 73% back to its pre-pandemic retention rate of 79% by 2024 and then grow it to 85% by 2030.

Keeping students enrolled in college, especially those who face additional barriers, is not simple, however. Finances are often a factor, but students’ reasons for leaving college are varied and often multi-faceted. For some, it’s the challenge of juggling work and school. For others, it’s a struggle to make it through a particular academic area. For others, poor mental health takes its toll.

“It is very complicated,” Swallow said. “As a mathematician, I’m prepared to say that. There isn’t one easy answer that applies to many.”

Carthage is considering a few solutions to ensure it doesn’t contribute to holding students back, he said.

Registration holds, for example, have traditionally prevented students from enrolling in their next semester of classes until their bill is paid in full.

“We may be all the way into the summer, they’re seeking to pay off the bill, but at this point maybe the classes aren’t available, maybe they’re full, maybe they’re less invested, and then the result is they don’t come back, even if they maybe had been able to pay off their bill by Aug. 1,” Swallow said.

A better alternative might be to allow students to register for classes but require full payment by the time classes begin, he added.

“We’re in process of deciding how we want to do it, but we are definitely looking at our holds and levels of our holds and financial aid arrangements for students. We are definitely looking at those things,” he said.

Raising retention rates feeds into a larger goal among four area colleges of increasing graduation rates among students of color and historically underserved students over the next decade. Carthage, Milwaukee Area Technical College, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and UW-Parkside publicly pledged a commitment to ending equity gaps by 2023 as part of the national “Moon Shot for Equity” initiative.

In the seven-county Milwaukee region, 56% of white students earned a degree or certificate within six years in 2020, compared to 32% of Hispanic students and 20% of Black students, according to data compiled by HERA.

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