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College boosts retention rates

Mills College increased retention rates this year through its implementation of Living Learning Communities (LLCs) and transfer student support programs.

The program additions were first instituted in order to address concerns about retention rates raised by the Wester Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), a college accreditation organization.

The retention rate for first-year students has improved and is up to 78 percent this year, said Alice Knudsen, Director of the Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Academic Assessment (OIRPAA).

The Retention Task Force, established in 2007, is chaired by Dean of Students Joi Lewis and Provost Sandra Greer.

The force uses data from OIRPAA surveys to analyze retention for all students and address their findings.

The Retention Action Committee (RAC) works under the Retention Task Force and monitors the continued implementation of changes to boost student retention.

According to Associate Dean of Students Angela Batista, who co-chairs the RAC, the committee has focused initiatives aimed at creating a broader range of connection among students and a stronger sense of belonging to the Mills community.

The Division of Student Life has also increased programming to support both transfer and graduate students. Knudsen said the increase in programming is in response to survey indications of dissatisfied students who felt the environment on campus was mainly geared toward first-year students.

There has also been an increase in coordinating events for graduate students and improvements to student orientation on both the undergraduate and graduate levels, ranging from greater accessibility for students to help from advisors and resident advisers.

“All of these continue to be things we’re working on,” Batista said. “The student population changes every year, and we really try to take into account all aspects from year to year. We have a variety of students. Therefore, there isn’t one recipe that works for all students.”

Batista works with Vice Provost Andrew Workman, who also co-chairs the RAC. Workman helped lead the initiation of the LLCs seven years ago.

LLCs are groups of first-year students in the residence halls that are brought together by common interests. Some groups are divided academically, like the Science LLC, and others focus on personal interests, such as the Sustainability LLC.

Workman said the LLCs were designed to help enhance student-to-student bonding, as well as bonding between students and their advisers.

To improve student connections to the Mills community and to improve students’ overall experiences on campus, Mills has increased the number of student activities and LLC outings with advisors prior to academic meetings.

“The LLCs were the single biggest thing done to increase retention,” Workman said.

Since the addition of the LLCs, there has been a 10 percent increase in first and second-year retention.

“There’s been a lot of intentional activity to really help students,” Workman said.

Many factors are involved in a student’s decision to leave, such as family income and GPA, according to Workman. Financial issues are commonly a factor, but so are poor grades; the GPA of a student who leaves is typically a whole grade point lower than that of the average student, he said.

In response to this, Workman said there has been continued work toward academic support, such as the peer tutoring program, and improved adviser support.

Knudsen said there has recently been a larger focus put on these pedagogical methods of improvement, including the level of academic challenge, and on creating more collaborative and active learning, such as student presentations in classes.

Results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) have been used to help assess these areas of improvement.

After Mills’ first participation with NSSE in 2008, the initial concern was to create a supportive campus environment for all students. Knudsen said the following NSSE results have showed improvements, and more recent efforts have been placed on the pedagogical aspects.

However, both Workman and Knudsen have already noted improvements in the retention data over the years, with a 10 percent increase in first-year retention over a five-year period, as well as a high 85 percent retention rate for transfer students.

“I feel really good about the direction we’re going,” Knudsen said.