A Systematic Approach for Addressing College Student Retention

by Kent Koebke

The goal of this paper and my roundtable presentation at the 2005 National Career Development Conference is to provide educators with a system for studying student retention. Retention is an issue every staff member should address, including career counselors. If students do not complete their chosen program or class, career counseling cannot be as effective as it should be.

As educational costs continue to rise, the number one factor in balancing most college budgets is enrollment. The staff at the Madison Area Technical College (MATC) regional campus in Watertown, Wisconsin, has established a systematic approach for studying student needs in relation to retention rates. With budgets cuts and greater scrutiny of how colleges use their monies, it is essential to have a plan to assess the student and community needs and address them in the most effective way. MATC Watertown adopted the following three-step scientific method for addressing this issue:

Step 1: Identify the problem:

Our problem/challenge was to determine the percent of students who did not return to MATC Watertown and to reduce this number.

Step 2: Build a model based on simplified assumptions:

To determine stakeholders, we built a very simplified model of the steps our students take from the time they enter MATC Watertown until they graduate.

MATC Watertown chart

Students initially apply for their chosen program and financial aid. They are given a reading, writing and math assessment (COMPASS) and then complete an orientation where they are advised on appropriate math and English classes. Next, students complete their program and go on to employment.

Step 3: Collect data and test the model:

We conducted four separate surveys from a variety of sources: 1.) A telephone survey of students who did not return from the fall semester, 2.) A Noel-Levitz Survey of Student Satisfaction (N-L SSI) of current students, 3.) Our own local survey of current students, and 4.) A survey of local industry professionals regarding employee needs.

The first survey was a six-question telephone survey of non-returning students. Our initial results have been very positive. We learned that non-returning students did so primarily for financial or personal reasons. Therefore, as a career advisor, I established career development sessions to help refocus students who had left and get them back on their chosen educational path.

MATC as a whole contracted with Noel-Levitz to conduct a survey of student satisfaction (N-L SSI) for students presently enrolled in the college. At the Watertown regional campus, we decided to supplement the N-L SSI with our own local survey so that we could see what students disliked or liked about our unique campus. Targeted classes were given both the N-L SSI and our local survey. Initial results showed that students are happy with the classroom instruction and academic/career advising, but seemed dissatisfied with the school’s application process and financial payment system. To better meet their financial concerns we increased publicity for our resume and interview educational materials to aid students seeking part-time jobs while in school.

The major stakeholders in our local community are various businesses. For our final survey, we needed to know employee needs, local job market outlooks, and employment requirements. We surveyed the local community of employers to determine how our graduates were meeting their employment requirements and what future job skills they might require. This survey was conducted through our business liaison team, a group of teachers who set up unique classes for local businesses. Initial findings revealed that our programs and quality of graduates generally met the local employer requirements. We have used this data to help our students market themselves to employer needs and thus improve their chances of getting jobs. Over time, this will increase our reputation as a great place to prepare for future employment.

We were also able to use survey input to assess the status of our current college system, from advising services to class schedules. As a career advisor, I was able to provide the administration with a unique perspective on additional steps we can take to enhance students’ educational experience. Having concrete data is particularly important when seeking funding for future programs that will not only keep students in college, but will better prepare them for jobs in the local area. Previously, we had only anecdotal evidence, but we can now quantify our results to support our proposals.

In conclusion, it is important to understand that this systematic approach needs to be refined each year and become a part of a continuous improvement philosophy. We must continually track retention rates to evaluate the success of our changes and whether or not they are cost effective for the community as a whole.

Kent Koebke, kkoebke@matcmadison.edu is the Adviser at MATC Watertown WI. Additionally, he teaches College Reading, College Success/Study Skills and Economics. He has a MA in Reading and is a GCDF.

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