OpinionImproved student experience is at the core of retention

Trinity's dean of students, David Tuttle, provides insight into why retention rates are important and how the administration is working to improve them.
David TuttleFebruary 27, 20202172 min
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Illustration by Ren Rader

Trinity isn’t the only university paying attention to retention and graduation rates. This has become a national obsession in higher education. For some places, their existence and survival depend on it. For a few dozen or so ultra-elite schools, they don’t have to worry about this. Trinity’s ongoing effort to move beyond our top regional ranking to find a place among the country’s best liberal arts and sciences institutions revealed an undeniable truth: We must do better.

We have a world-class faculty, exceptional students and staff and a beautiful campus in a diverse, vibrant, growing city. What we don’t have are the retention and graduation figures that necessarily reflect that. Retention is the percentage of students who return from first to second year. We are actually pretty solid there, in the 92 percent range. The four and six-year graduation rates lag some, and doing better will improve our chances of being higher in the rankings.

This isn’t all for show. Higher rankings lead to more prestige, which leads to increased selectivity. This, in turn, helps attract more diverse students and employees. High rankings build a national reputation, so when students and alumni say they go to — or went to — Trinity, people won’t ask, “Which one?” All of this gives donors confidence and more money means more scholarships, better facilities and programs and lots of parking. Okay, maybe not parking. But money does matter for nonprofits such as TU.

Yet, the focus on these metrics is not just about appearances. If students want to leave, or leave unhappy, then we will have failed on the promises made in the recruitment and admissions processes. To that end, over the past year, the administration, faculty and staff have been looking at improving the overall experience here. In addition to a change in financial aid policy that aligns academic scholarships and need-based financial aid GPA requirements (both are now at 2.0), the faculty just approved a change from a 124-hour graduation requirement to 120 hours, adjusted repeating course grading policy and simplified the grade appeal process. This is only the beginning. The curriculum is under further review (this is an evergreen project), and registration issues, including course availability and waitlists, are being examined.

What’s more, there are a number of other areas under scrutiny. Namely, there are amped-up touchpoints between staff and individual students when student success is waning. This includes better tracking and data, more hands-on attention as well as follow-up and the newly approved advising system. A summer orientation system is on the table to align more with other institutions in Texas. Mental health issues that students face nationally continue to be addressed here, as staffing thresholds are examined. Diversity and inclusion, financial aid, overall value and more are being considered.

The intersection of the means (improved student experience) and the ends (improved retention and rankings) is a package deal. This is a winning formula for our students and the institution. Not everyone is always happy here. But lots of people are looking at what may be frustrating our students and trying to be responsive. The university is committed to removing obstacles to success, offering greater support and resources and delivering on our promise of an exceptional academic and developmental experience.

David Tuttle

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