UM Programs Drive Record Freshman Retention Rates

Michelle Obama called for better student support programs, many of which already exist at UM

New UM freshmen practice 'Locking the Vaught' at the Class of 2016 Kick-Off Picnic Sunday evening in the Grove.  Photo by Nathan Latil - Ole Miss Communications

New UM freshmen practice ‘Locking the Vaught’ at the Class of 2016 Kick-Off Picnic Sunday evening in the Grove. Photo by Nathan Latil – Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Though many college students struggle to adjust to the rigors of higher education and some drop out within a year of enrolling, the University of Mississippi has a broad support network of offices and departments that has helped produce record freshman retention rates.

For many years, the university handled its student retention efforts through several different departments. Last year, UM opened its Center for Student Success and First Year Experience. Since then, the freshman retention rate has grown from about 81 percent to the present 85.6 percent, which officials said is a university record. Other universities are looking to UM for advice about how to improve their own retention rates.

The nearly five-point jump in freshman retention this year is “phenomenal,” said Kyle Ellis, the center’s director. The center has worked to tailor its efforts to the needs of each student, which has helped drive those record rates, he said.

“What we found through years of research is with our freshmen, their lack of persistence is for a variety of reasons, but the most common are financial, social fit, health and academics,” Ellis said. “There’s no one way to pigeonhole all freshmen who leave into one specific category, but if we can address the individual issues early in the semester, it helps us in retaining each and every freshman.”

The center provides academic advising to about 80 percent of the freshman class, as well as undeclared students, and also coordinates several first-year student experience initiatives. It also has resources for veterans and members of the military, among other services.

The center’s leadership also cites the new first-year experience course, EDHE 105, as something that has helped better prepare freshmen. The university authors its own comprehensive, 391-page textbook, which addresses issues specific to life on the Ole Miss campus.

Representatives of the center work closely with all UM academic departments and faculty, the dean’s offices, the Department of Student Housing, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and the Office of Financial Aid, among others.

“We’re really lucky in this university and this learning community to have support so broadly for these initiatives,” said Dewey Knight, associate director of the Center for Student Success and First Year Experience. “From the chancellor to the provost, to the deans, to all the Student Affairs workers, there is a culture that says this is something we need to do. This is something that is important to our students.”

Recently, first lady Michelle Obama issued a letter calling for better support systems for gifted students who might not have the financial means or built-in support networks to help them succeed in college. She used the example of young man named Troy, who was from New Orleans and survived Hurricane Katrina. Troy didn’t originally like school but blossomed during his high school years and now studies at Bard College. The first lady noted many colleges are taking steps to make sure these students graduate, but more need to join the efforts. She called for programs similar to many already in place at UM.

“These kinds of programs aren’t just good for these young people,” Obama wrote. “They’re good for all of us. Because after everything these kids will have overcome to get to college – and get through college – they’ll have all the skills they need to thrive in our businesses, and law firms, and labs. And that’s not just good for them and their families, it’s good for their communities and our country.”

Ellis and Knight point to the Ole Miss Opportunity scholarship program, in which a coordinator will be hired to work with students from freshman year through graduation, and the StudentsFIRST program, which is tailored for first-generation college students, as examples of initiatives the first lady is calling for that already exist here.

At UM, the Center of Student Success is just one of several departments with the goal of helping students succeed.

The FASTrack program, housed at Ventress Hall, is a learning community for first-year students that divides them into “cohorts” of 20 students or less, in which they take three classes together during the fall semester and three more during the spring. This helps build a sense of community and support from peers. Those FASTrack students typically get to know one other well and also study and socialize with one other.

The program has grown from 25 students in 2007, its first year, to 330 students in this academic year, said Stephen Monroe, assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Monroe heads up the FASTrack program.

“All students need a sense of community and support during the first year of college,” Monroe said. “FASTrack provides this foundation to students from a wide variety of backgrounds. Our students are responding with hard work and solid academic achievement.”

Each year, UM also awards 75 Luckyday scholarships, which range from $2,000 to $5,000 annually. In conjunction with that, there’s also the Luckyday Success Program, which assists students during their transition from high school to college. Luckyday is built on the idea that a strong foundation during the first year of college is the key to being successful at a university.

Scholars meet individually with the Luckyday staff every two weeks to talk about any academic issues or social problems they may be experiencing, said Senora Miller Logan, assistant director of Luckyday programs. This has helped retention efforts.

“In a relationship where (students have) built trust with us, they can talk freely about these issues and therefore those things won’t become an obstacle in their academic performance, and they can stay in college,” Miller Logan said. “A lot of the situations we discuss with them can be fixed easily, but to young people, those issues feel like the biggest thing in the world. Really, what they need is just someone they trust and can talk to to work those thought processes out.”