Student Retention Moves Center Stage

Curt Carlson

Recruiting students to UNK is only the first step. Keeping them year-to-year, and ultimately through graduation, is an infinitely more complex challenge that demands effort of every office, and, indeed, every faculty member, staff person and administrator. In an attempt to do just that, the UNK administration earlier this semester appointed a new committee, the Retention and Student Success Enhancement Team, becoming quickly known as “RSSET.”

UNK, in fact, compares well against its Board of Regents (BOR) __ defined peer universities in student “persistence rates,” those numbers that describe percentages of students who stay from freshmen to sophomore years (“first-year retention rate”) and those who graduate within six years of matriculation (the “six-year graduation rate”).

UNK exceeded its peer institution averages in both first-year retention rate and six-year graduation rate, major benchmarks of success established by the BOR. (Report to the BOR by Dr. Linda Pratt, NU’s provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs, January, 2007).

Why then a major push to improve? Simply because no one is satisfied UNK is doing as well as it should by simply exceeding peer institution averages. Indeed, the opening statements of UNK’s recently adopted Strategic Plan place the bar much, much higher than that.

In the Strategic Plan, UNK commits itself to becoming no less than “one of the nation’s premier undergraduate institutions.” UNK’s stated vision is that the university “will achieve national distinction for a high quality, multidimensional learning environment, engagement with community and public interests, and preparation of students to lead responsible and productive lives in a democratic, multicultural society.”

Dr. Finnie Murray, senior vice chancellor for Academic Affairs and Student Life explained UNK’s commitment this way: “A major new feature of recent strategic planning has been to raise, by consensus, the bar on excellence. It’s ambitious to reach beyond what is good, but it’s also more satisfying than standing pat. Nobody else is!”

The Columns has previously reported on the work of the Recruitment and Admissions Enhancement Team (RAET). (Vol. 1, No. 4, Feb. 26, 2007). At the same time RAET was formed, Chancellor Doug Kristensen also commissioned RSSET, initially chaired by Dr.Murray and now led by Dr. Lois Flagstad, dean of Student Life. Both RAET and RSSET, plus a faculty advisory team led by Dr. Ken Nickels, associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, were established in response to the Strategic Plan’s renewed emphasis on efforts to enhance student recruiting and retention success.

With particular respect to the student experience at UNK, the plan takes a broad view of what UNK must do to fulfill its educational and developmental mission. Under the Student Development Goal, administrators are charged to develop a comprehensive strategy to guide planning and activity outside the formal curriculum to enhance each student’s prospects for success at UNK.

Part of that charge is to establish “collaborative mechanisms . . . enabling units to cooperate across organizational boundaries to enhance student retention, graduation and career placement.” This commitment recognizes that all constituencies of the university must understand their roles — and how they can cooperate — in helping students succeed.

These are the driving principles for the new team. By all accounts, RSSET members are already facilitating dialogue and developing new understandings across multiple offices and units about how everyone at UNK can all work better together to reach a level of “national distinction” beyond anything previously achieved Dean Flagstad declared RSSET as “a dynamic example of the shared responsibility that Academic Affairs and Student Life have for the learning and development of our students.” She defined the work of the team “to identify and further develop the many avenues and venues that contribute to student success at UNK.”

While university leaders anticipate that new, coordinated and unit-based initiatives will be implemented as soon as they are ready, RSSET will also produce a comprehensive Student Retention and Success Plan during Phase II of UNK’s ongoing campus-wide planning process (See The Columns, Volume, 1, No. 5, March 12, 2007). That plan, and other Phase II implementing plans, will be prepared over the course of the coming year.

“There is no shortage of perspectives in this group,” Dr. Flagstad said. “But that is exactly what will drive us forward and help move the campus culture toward the idea that retention is, indeed, everyone’s responsibility.

“The commitment is there, and we can already see many great ideas flying around the table that will surely pay dividends, not only to UNK, but far more importantly, to those students whom we serve,” she concluded.

Members of RSSET include: Dr. Ken Nikels, Academic Affairs; Curt Carlson, University Relations; Dr. Daren Snider, Modern Languages; Deb Schroeder, Information Technology Services; Dusty Newton, Admissions; Dr. Gail Zeller, Center for Academic Success; Dr. Gary Davis,Honors Program; Dr. Jeanne Butler, Center for Teaching Excellence and Office of Assessment; Jerry Fox, International Education; Juan Guzman,Multicultural Affairs; Kathy Livingston, Institutional Research; Kimra Schipporeit, Student Records and Registration; Larry Riessland, Finance; Dr. LeAnn Obrecht, Counseling and Health Care; Linda Johnson, Graduate Admissions;Mary Daake, Academic Advising; Mary Sommers, Financial Aid; Nancy Kneen, Career Services; Richard Larsen, Residential and Greek Life; Sharon Pelc,Nebraskan Student Union; Dr.Deborah Bridges, Faculty Assistant; Dr. Francis Harrold, College of Natural and Social Sciences; Dr. Ed Scantling, College of Education; Dr. Kenya Taylor, Graduate Studies and Research; Dr. Bruce Forster, College of Business and Technology;Dr. William Jurma, College of Fine Arts and Humanities; Dr. Janet Wilke, Library; Dr. Lois Flagstad, Student Life: Andrew Hansen, graduate student representative; and Amber Lewis, undergraduate student representative