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February 20, 2006

Student retention focus of forum

By Jennifer McNulty

Campus student retention and graduation rates are better than national averages in at least two scenarios, but there's room for improvement, according to participants in a campus forum earlier this month.

"Our graduation rates are good and rising, but they're still below the UC average," said William Ladusaw, linguistics professor and dean of undergraduate education at UCSC.

In one national sample of 279 universities, 58 percent of students graduated within six years, compared with 65 percent of UCSC students.

An analysis of NCAA Division I schools showed a 59 percent six-year graduation rate, compared with 67 percent of UCSC students. Such results are encouraging, but UCSC's performance among University of California campuses shows the campus lagging by 9 percentage points: Systemwide, the average six-year graduation rate is 78 percent, compared to 69 percent at UCSC.

Presenting the data, Julian Fernald, director of institutional research and policy studies within Planning and Budget, said the most recent data show that 89 percent of freshmen who arrived in September 2004 returned the next fall--a record high for the campus. The most recent graduation figures, based on freshmen who enrolled in 1999, show that 70 percent had graduated from UCSC within six years.

The difference between UCSC’s current graduation rate and the UC average is about 300 freshmen per year, explained Ladusaw. "If 30 more students at each college returned for their sophomore year, our graduation rates would rise to the current UC average," he said.

Changes to enhance retention and graduation were discussed during the February 10 forum attended by about 75 people in the Stevenson Event Center. Members of the Academic Senate's Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) held the forum for faculty, staff, and students. A committee report to the Senate in May will offer policy and program recommendations.

Four coordinators of student-initiated mentorship and academic support programs addressed the gathering to discuss factors they believe affect retention, from class size and curriculum to the scarcity of faculty of color. They called for increased student participation in retention efforts and underscored the work students are doing for each other.

Ana Chow of the Community Unified Student Network (CUSN) said the network "creates spaces where students feel safe to speak their concerns. That's what keeps us here, not necessarily what the university does for us."

Another student linked the retention of students to the retention of faculty of color and noted the recent departures of Judy Yung and George Lipsitz. "They were like friends, or colleagues," she said. "They engaged students as teachers in the classroom."

CEP chair Richard Hughey, professor of biomolecular engineering, described the committee's attempts to identify impediments within current undergraduate regulations, policies, and procedures, and opportunities to make programmatic improvements to boost retention.

"Do we know which students are in trouble? Not always," said Hughey. Noting that some high-achieving students enroll at UCSC with the intention of transferring, Hughey suggested the campus could do more to retain them, including letting them declare their major earlier. He noted factors such as clubs and food that are important to the day-to-day experiences of students, and he suggested that "discovery seminars" and honors programs might further engage students.

At least one student spoke out against the idea of developing an honors program to cater to high-achieving students, saying she feared it would create a "hierarchy" that could disadvantage nonparticipants. But Ladusaw, who uses the term "challenge track" rather than "honors program," clarified that he believes any such program should be available to all.

Holly Gritsch de Cordova, director of the Learning Center of the Academic Resources Center, spoke on behalf of Robert Coe, professor of Earth sciences and chair of the Academic Senate Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid, who was ill.

She urged the campus to attract students who "really want to be at UCSC" and emphasized the need for a student body that is diverse in academic achievement, major, family income level, cultural background, high school performance level, and geographic region. She spoke in favor of admitting "diamonds in the rough," whom she described as students with "potential who want to be here and could succeed."

Noting that about 50 percent of incoming freshmen--who met all the UC eligibility requirements--still lack basic skills, Gritsch de Cordova called for strategies to boost "effective critical reading, critical thinking, and university writing skills" as well as algebra and pre-calculus mathematics. "Will the campus assist these students to ensure their success?" she asked before posing a question about students at the other end of the range: "Can we attract top students without offering an honors program for them?"

"We need to support our students by offering academic support and academic challenges," she said.

UCSC is the only campus in the UC system that lacks a comprehensive network of services for students whose first language was not English, said Gritsch de Cordova. Finally, she stressed the need for greater campus investment in Regents Scholarships, which has dropped to the lowest rate in the UC system. "If we reinstate support at the level of 2000-01, we'll be on par with UC Riverside," she said, referring to a 50 percent drop per capita over the past five years.

Reviewing the broad range of support services provided by Student Affairs, Vice Chancellor Francisco Hernandez nevertheless conceded, "It's clear we need to do more. We need to understand more why students leave." For some students, leaving is the right choice, but Hernandez wants the campus to turn its focus to those who "leave because of something we did, whether it's financial aid or something in the classroom. We need to adjust our services accordingly and change."

In the 12 years he has been at UCSC, Hernandez has witnessed the highest fee increases in the history of the university. "We do know students are working more and borrowing more," he said. "We need more grants and scholarships. We need to match the fundraising of our sister campuses."

Then, noting that the campus is "much bigger" than when he arrived in 1994, Hernandez said, "We need to create a more welcoming environment."

Dan Wood, director of Physical Education, Recreation, Sports & Wellness (OPERS), said retention is directly related to "personal contacts" and 95 percent of students are involved in exercise and sport.

"OPERS turns away 4,000 students a year," he said. "We need to do more of what we're doing well right now--more money for Student Affairs, physical education, recreation, especially wellness."

Joel Ferguson, professor of computer engineering and provost of Crown College, lamented the low turnout of faculty--particularly deans and department chairs--at the forum. "They're the ones with a lot of power to lead faculty to make changes," he said. "I'm disappointed not more are here. We've got to get the leaders of the divisions and departments involved."

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