Student retention rates—the number of students who return the following year—has become a preeminent performance indicator for the universities over the years.
“Losing students” not only represents institutional loss, but also the greater loss faced by the individual students; from emotional to financial, to loss of a crucial time of their life.
Similarly, even here at Trent University, student retention is recognized as a priority.
“Although Trent had been seeing a gradual increase in student retention rate over the years, it is still not as high as they want,” informed Associate Vice President Students Nona Robinson.
The Strategic Enrollment Management of the university identified the need to have a focus on retention and, as a result, they started the Retention Committee about a year and a half ago to look at the different aspects of retention.
There has been much work on retention over the years, and one thing that’s been especially helpful is the fact that it’s really started to dig into and look at some of the reasons why students were leaving and what were some ways in which the students can get connected to different supports.
The main things they’ve started up in the last few years, according to Robinson, are programs such as student support training for staff and faculty to identify students who are in distress so as to understand what some of the factors that lead to students having trouble are, and also feeling confident talking with other students.
They are also trying to roll out more and more of that for students in general as a part of student leader training.
Further, they are also potentially exploring things to do for first year students when they come in.
One of the new programs that they’ve started this year is the Rebound program, where students who haven’t done very well have the opportunity to get a one-on-one mentoring relationship with a trained upper year student.
The Rebound guides are fully trained on various areas around student support and are equipped to mentor on areas outside academics as well.
The whole concept of that is to help people including individual students to identify difficulties at early stages before they become more difficult to overcome.
The other area they’re looking at is to see if there are some specific ways in which they can reach out to students that they know are vulnerable, and assessing how effective their outreach is.
They are also known to have been doing as much as possible to help all the services coordinate and work together.
There are several reasons for this initiative. “As far as I am concerned, student retention is the most important thing. I don’t want students to come to Trent and feel like they are not able to succeed,” she said.
There is a lot of personal cost for students, not just financially, but even emotionally in some cases. For example, with the sense that they haven’t done well.
And, of course, it affects Trent itself because they need the student numbers in order to be able to continue to offer the courses they want to offer.
However, she says, “The bigger picture for me is when I see a retention which can be higher [but] isn’t, one of the things that is very hard for me to separate away from that is the actual individual students who are not sticking around.
“I don’t want students to leave Trent feeling as though this was a bad experience or that they weren’t supported or that they weren’t able to achieve their goals. I want students to come to Trent and be really excited about their learning and experience here at Trent.
“But I realize that it is not going to be the case for every student and there [are] all sorts of reason for it. So what I want to do is really start to narrow down this reason and see what we can do about them. I want them to have a good learning experience.”
Students make many personal investments to come to university, so leaving school is a very difficult decision for many students.
Robinson wants to help them feel that they are leaving only because it is the right decision for them at that time.
However, ideally, if there are things they can do to support them to stay, then the main goal is to explore the sort of support students need in order to be successful.
Student retention is more along the line of providing support to student needs in order to be successful.
Retention is everybody’s job and Robinson sees it as something where staff members are involved, faculty are involved and other students are involved—completely reflective of Trent collaboration.
“For me, if I know that the students are leaving for reasons that are preventable, then I want to try and prevent those reasons,” said Robinson.