Closing the gap: SU makes strides in retention
Closing the gap: SU makes strides in retentionApril 02, 2003Matthew R. Snydermrsnyder@syr.edu
When the Syracuse University Retention and Attrition Committee released its December 1987 report on graduation rates, the news was grim: Only 40 percent of African American students who enrolled from 1980 to 1982 had persisted to graduation within 6 years, and African American students graduated at a 6-year rate 23 percentage points lower than their Caucasian counterparts.
Fast forward to today and the picture brightens considerably. “We have work left to do, but we’ve made tremendous improvement,” says Barry L. Wells, senior vice president and dean of student affairs. “We’ve shrunk the gap between African American and Caucasian 6-year graduation rates to just 6 percentage points, while improving the University’s overall rate to better than 75 percent-the highest SU has ever recorded, with momentum toward meeting our goal of an 85 percent graduation rate.”
SU’s overall improvement has been assisted considerably by better graduation rates among students of color. The impact has not gone unnoticed; in her March 25 address to the University community, Vice Chancellor and Provost Deborah A. Freund moved up the timetable for meeting her retention goals for the general student population, calling for a graduation rate of 80 percent by next year and 85 percent by 2009.
According to the Center for Support of Teaching and Learning (CSTL), which has monitored the University’s retention rates since 1989, there are other signs of improving African American retention rates on campus as well. In 2000, for example, only about 4 percent of SU’s African American freshmen dropped out after their first year. “It’s a lower percentage than any other ethnic group and the lowest rate on record for this key indicator of future retention,” says Barbara A. Yonai, associate director of CSTL.
This vast improvement, however, faces one remaining obstacle: perception. “Unfortunately, numbers of people-parents, students, faculty, and staff-still think about SU in terms of 20 years ago,” Wells says. “This snapshot shows that we’re no longer a laggard in retaining African American students; we’re rapidly becoming a leader.”
Freund has established a peer group of 12 universities against which SU measures its performance in several areas. Since 1989, none of those peer institutions has improved its graduation rate gap as much as SU has. Not only that, but according to an NCAA survey of Division I private institutions, SU’s current gap of 6 percentage points clearly outshines the national average gap of 23 percent.
“People must abandon dated perceptions,” says Horace H. Smith, associate vice president of undergraduate studies in the Division of Student Support and Retention. “We were once average, but now we’re exceptional. For African American students at SU, the University’s core value of diversity doesn’t just mean retention for retention’s sake. It means facilitating their successful participation in the University community.”
Anne L. Shelly, director of the Center for Retention Studies, concurs. “It’s the students who really tell the stories behind these great numbers,” Shelly says. “We have talked with students who have left and those who are still pursuing their degrees. In both cases, we have learned a lot about what the institution is doing or not doing that influences decisions to stay or to leave.”
Shelly credits several programs for their influential role in improving retention. For example, the Student SUccess Initiative is aimed toward assisting at-risk students whether they are having academic problems or considering leaving SU for other reasons. Other initiatives include the creation of learning communities, which help students forge stronger connections with other students who share the same interests and goals, as well as key faculty and staff members. “Staff are building strong relationships with students to understand what’s getting in the way of success and to help open up new resources,” Shelly says.
Soon, retention stories might also be told in dollar signs. Recent proposals by the Bush administration hint that federal funding for student aid might soon be linked to retention rates. “If that happens, we can expect to see more colleges and universities focusing on the issue of African American retention,” Wells says. “At SU, we’re seeing the results, because we’re not only addressing the issue, we’re identifying causes of the problem and devoting our resources to its solution. We haven’t yet earned the right to celebrate, but we’re moving much closer to that goal.”