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May 23, 2002 Attrition rates are under attack at internal conference on enrolment



by Barbara Black

An internal conference was held May 14 that brought together more than 100 stakeholders from across the university on two subjects undergoing change at Concordia: managing the enrolment process, and keeping more of our students through to graduation.

It was sponsored by Arts and Science, and organized by Enrolment Manager Donald Chambers. Dean Martin Singer opened the conference with words of welcome and encouragement.

Retention took up the morning session, and it took its tone from video excerpts from a recent teleconference on the subject. In the presentation, students offered reasons that some of their peers drop out — and four U.S. experts suggested that they are being too hard on themselves.

The students tended to blame themselves for lack of self-discipline and maturity, but the expert panel said that while students’ bear some responsibility in the learning process, the institution has an active role to play, too. As for the remark by more than one students that “university isn’t for everybody,” the experts said that this is at odds with our credo of broad accessibility to higher education.

When one of the participating institutions in the teleconference suggested that a way of addressing low graduation rates was to restrict admission and weed out the poor students, the experts were indignant. There aren’t enough A students to go around, and you should work with the students you have to bring them up to your standards.

In fact, one of the surprising findings of a researcher who has been sifting through data in Concordia ’s Faculty of Arts and Science is the number of students who leave their studies despite having excellent marks. Only 20 per cent of the students who left from the fall 1999 cohort did so because of academic failure. A large number of departing students had a GPA of at least 3.0!

Precisely why these students leave is still not clear, but the numbers — and their implications for funding — are worth close study. The most immediate concern is the contrat de performance, in which the university promised the education minister to raise the graduation rates of full-time students substantially by 2009-10.

Study on attrition

Cameron Tilson, Senior Planning and Policy Analyst in the Rector’s Cabinet, is heading a major project on retention for Arts and Science, and has been working on it since last September. It is one of four areas of priority in the academic planning process, the other three being faculty hiring and retention, increasing research activity, and enhancing the use of information technology in the learning process.

Tilson chose three cohorts of first-year students, for the fall of 1995, 1997 and 1999, because according to the literature, most attrition occurs before the start of the second year. The lack of a highly developed tracking system meant that he had to examine individual student records, an arduous, albeit interesting, process.

He found quite different results, depending on whether the students had entered from the Quebec CEGEP system or from another province or country. Mature students (accepted without conventional admission requirements) had an especially high rate of attrition.

The overall first-year attrition rate in Arts and Science for the three years examined in detail was just over 25 per cent, or one in four students. This is comparable to the American data; no Canadian data is available. However, the rate varied widely among departments in the Faculty, from 6 per cent in one department to 40 per cent in another.

Tilson provided an outline of what losing these students means to Concordia. Assuming that 400 full-time-equivalent first-year students abandon their studies and do not persist to graduation, the university loses approximately $6 million in gross revenue, i.e. government grant and tuition. The time and salaries of recruitment and enrolment staff have been to some degree wasted. As for the university’s reputation, it can be badly tarnished by disappointed students and their families.

Tilson has already provided the dean and chairs with a list of retention strategies to consider. He is planning to conduct in-depth surveys of students who have left, and may also interview successful students about what they can teach us. Future study will focus particularly on those departments and programs with the highest attrition rates.

He had a parting comment:

“More and more evidence suggests that what happens in the classroom can greatly influence student retention. Therefore, the design of effective retention strategies must include an examination of the teaching and learning process.

“Retention is everyone’s business — it is not the sole responsibility of academic advisors and student services personnel.”

Big changes in enrolment management

Since last December, among Roger Côté’s many administrative hats has been that of leader of the Enrolment Management Transformation Project (EMTP), a sweeping overhaul of how Concordia manages its most precious resource, its students.

This includes transforming and integrating current student administrative services functions with those of the constituent Faculties, schools and colleges of the university, and being responsive to their academic and enrolment plans.

In this, the EMTP has benefited from the experience of a company that specializes in university enrolment management called Noel-Levitz. While the company is based in the United States, it has a single Canadian employee, Drew Ness, who was on hand at the May 14 internal conference to provide an entertaining and culturally specific overview of the challenges involved.

Noel-Levitz used the image of a funnel to describe the student’s journey from first inquiry through to application, admission and registration.

Ness passed on the results of surveys he has done, and insights he has picked up not only from the U.S. experience, but from universities more like Concordia.

For example, in a pilot study at the University of Guelph, he discovered that the availability of financial aid made no difference to whether a student applied for entry, because applying for aid came about later in the process. Another university tells potential students that they guarantee financial help, a message that is reassuring — and meaningless — but true, since student loans are so widely available.

American universities, especially the private ones, buy lists of names of students, and bombard them with sophisticated advertising from Grade 10 on. “If we sent that much e-mail, Canadian students would wonder what was wrong with us,” Ness said, to grins from the audience. However, he added that targeted electronic messages are definitely cheaper than visits to CEGEPs and high schools.

Similarly, many universities waste time and money sending information to students who are not interested. Phone calls that start, “What would you like to ask us?” make little sense. Who is courting whom?

Another study Ness conducted in Ontario showed how mixed — and mixed-up — many universities are in the messages they send to potential students.

He had a senior university student send four specific questions to the admissions directors of universities across Canada. Only a few responded quickly and specifically. Others sent their entire academic calendar, or a sheaf of general information. When the same letter was sent to the liaison office of the same universities, some of the institutions sent the same reply, while others sent completely different ones.

One of the most important developments in the ongoing enrolment management project at Concordia is the introduction of Documentum, through which applications on paper are scanned into an electronic format so that a number of staff can survey and alter the documents simultaneously.

It started as a pilot project in the Faculty of Arts and Science, and became fully operational this winter, meeting its goal of processing all applications from conventional sources, such as the CEGEPs, by May 1. Despite the major adjustment it has required to work processes in the Registrar’s Office, Documentum represents a great step forward, because it frees up the admissions officers to handle the much more time-consuming international applications.

Côté pointed out that fully 85 per cent of applicants have an e-mail address, and provides a great way to communicate with students. This year, students received their letter of acknowledgement and a letter of welcome from the rector electronically. A call centre is being opened this week to improve the “yield and capture” of students who express interest in coming to Concordia.

Early alert system will catch potential problem students

One size fits all just won’t cut it when you’re talking about Concordia students, according to Sup Mei Graub, director of Counselling and Development. This university’s student body is just too various — ages, languages, employment status, and cultural expectations here cover a broader range than most institutions.

That means that the earlier they know about a student’s potential problems, the better her staff can help them. Since the most crucial period for students is in their first year — in fact, a significant number who drop out decide to do so within the first few weeks of class — it makes sense to ask them the right questions even before they sit down in the classroom.

That’s the thinking behind the Student Success Check-Up, which will go into its first phase this summer. This is a questionnaire that will go out online to all students who have applied to enter Concordia, even before they get their notification of acceptance.

It is a Canadian version of the U.S.-based College Student Inventory, and identifies students’ academic and personal needs, attitudes, motivational patterns, resources, coping mechanisms and receptivity to intervention.

About 10,000 students will be sent the questionnaire. Since such surveys get a response rate of about 10 per cent, that should deliver 1,000 respondents by fall.

Students who indicate the need for help will be interviewed, and all respondents’ first-term marks will be analyzed. The questionnaire will be re-administered next spring, and compared with registration data for the following fall. These students will be tracked in this way for two more years.

“We have a lot of hope for this program,” Dr. Graub said enthusiastically, summing up her presentation. She was followed by two members of Counselling and Development, Marlene Gross (New Student Program) and learning and study skills specialist Mary O’Malley on the specific support they provide.