Learning About Growth from Students Who Leave
Learning About Growth from Students Who Leave
We know why students at Fresno Pacific University persist to graduation: good teaching; small class sizes; building relationships with faculty, staff and fellow students; caring about each student as a whole person; our foundation of ethics and faith. But what about those who don’t make it to commencement? Did they not fit in? Did we fail them? If college isn’t for everyone, was it not for them?
Retention is an important part of Growing Strategically. For the past 15 months, Dustin Cabral, registrar coordinator, and I have conducted brief exit interviews with students withdrawing from FPU. These hard and honest conversations have changed the way I see our work with students.
WHAT WE LEARNED
- Students make a choice to attend Fresno Pacific University every semester
I was surprised at just how frequently students start their college career with one foot out the door. For many, the goal of attaining a college degree seems like a long shot. They register each semester with some hesitation and constantly ask themselves “Is this going to work?” But maybe this should not have been a surprise. Of our new fall 2018 TUG students, 68.9% were in one or more of the following categories:
- Academically At-Risk—admitted with our lowest acceptable academic credentials
- Low-Socioeconomic Status—an estimated family contribution of $0
- First-Generation—neither parent attended college
For these students, grades, finances or work schedules can prevent them from fully committing to their college career.
- Students have few connections to Fresno Pacific University
Many students have a strong commitment to one community within the university, but not the university as a whole. When students withdraw, I hear stories like “my music professor left” or “my coach went to work at another university” or “things are not going well with the people in my residence hall.” While one of the most attractive qualities of FPU is the ability to quickly and easily form deep connections and authentic communities with a like-minded group—If you like health sciences, we have a club for you. If you like soccer, we have a team (and intramurals) for you. If you like music, we have an ensemble for you—many students develop these connections to the exclusion of a broader sense of belonging to FPU. Even students who have been here for two or three years will choose to withdraw over the loss of one of these connections.
- Poor grades are not always the result of an academic problem
Please do not get me wrong—poor grades, in and of themselves, are an academic problem. However, many students are failing class, not because they cannot grasp the material or refuse to do their homework, but because some other life circumstance is an obstacle to their success. Unreliable transportation, the need to work and support their family and physical or mental health concerns often cause poor academic performance.
- Students need to see the value of their degree
One of the most common reasons students gives for leaving FPU is “financial reasons.” However, as our conversations continue, the real reason is usually a concern over value rather than an inability to pay. Many first-time students choose a major because they are interested in the subject or have a broad idea of what kind of career they want. But as time marches on and the balance of their student loans increase, they need more clarity. They need to know what job they should apply for, how they are going to pay off their loans and what kind of positive impact their completed degree will have on their family. Many students I interviewed have reached this point, do not know what they want to do next and end up reverse transferring to a two-year institution with hopes to return to FPU once they “figure it out.” Unfortunately, only 20% of students who withdraw from FPU return.
WHAT WE CAN DO
- Identify your students
“Retention” is not in most of our job descriptions. Still, we have all chosen employment at FPU because we want to see students’ lives changed. If we want to make a meaningful impact in the success of our students, we must identify students of whom we can say “their success is my responsibility.” Maybe they are in your class, come to the mailroom window or work in your office. Regardless of your role at FPU, there are students that you can identify as yours. Even a commitment to pray for them and be mindful of their needs can make all the difference.
- Ask better questions
A student who cannot afford to buy lunch and is failing three classes will answer “good” if you ask: “How are you doing?” No one wants to feel they are burdening someone else with their problems. Once we have identified our students, we can build rapport and, when the moment is right, we can stop talking about the weather and start asking meaningful questions—questions that show we care about them. When we ask students about their family, their commute or their passions, they learn who they can come to when they need help.
- Trust the resources of our community
If we ask better questions and have meaningful conversations, students begin to give us real answers. When students find the courage to confide in us and ask for help, we can connect them to the trained professionals on our campus with the expertise to provide specialized support. Sometimes I can meet the needs of a student; other times it is more beneficial for me to refer the student to someone better equipped to help his or her need. Working together, we can use our collective gifts and talents to better help students succeed. Let’s continue to encourage one another and champion the excellent resources offered here.
“Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered” – Proverbs 11:25 (ESV)