Lawrence works to address student frustrations as retention issues persist 

Photo by Alana Melvin.

Lawrence University is looking to increase its retention rate due to concerns that it is not meeting the expectations set for students during the admissions process.  

Retention, or the percentage of students that continue their educational career at a particular institution, can be used as an indicator of student satisfaction. At the end of Fall Term, Ashley Lewis was hired as Associate Vice President for Enrollment to develop a retention strategy for Lawrence.  

The national first-to-second-year retention rate is 69%. At Lawrence, it’s 85%. Although this is much higher than the national average, it’s lower than many of Lawrence’s peer institutions. Various students depart between sophomore and senior year, resulting in a graduation rate of 78.63%. This means that out of a student body of 1,432 people, around 306 do not graduate.  

Examples of peer institutions with higher retention rates include Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, which has an 89% retention rate; St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., which has a 91% retention rate; and Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., which has a 97% retention rate. 

Some other liberal arts institutions in Wisconsin have lower retention rates such as Beloit College and St. Norbert College, which have retention rates at 79% and 82%, respectively.  Lawrence has a higher retention rate than the colleges in the UW system, with the exceptions of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Additionally, various students and staff have discussed a variety of issues that impact retention, specifically at Lawrence. A major issue stressed during most student interviews was a feeling that Lawrence advertises itself as a better place than it is and the disappointment felt when promises made during admissions do not come to fruition. 

Vice President for Communications & Marketing Megan Scott agreed that Lawrence can improve its efforts to authentically represent the institution in communications and marketing. Scott feels that it is important to highlight students’ authentic experiences at Lawrence, citing student profiles featured on the website and the video featured at President Laurie Carter’s Matriculation Convocation.   

Some students left because Lawrence didn’t have the educational and social opportunities they needed, such as specific hands-on learning programs and certain degrees that don’t exist here. Jack Skywalker, a first-year who transferred after Fall Term, said that he feels Lawrence doesn’t have a vibrant campus life, giving examples such as hall events not being well-attended. 

A handful of juniors and seniors agreed that community events in residence halls could be better attended and felt campus traditions have not recovered from COVID-19.  

Several students also expressed displeasure over the community on-and-off-campus. Examples cited include Appleton’s public transportation system. Even though Lawrence students can ride for free, many students, especially those without cars, feel that Valley Transit routes aren’t always convenient and long wait times for buses add time to trips.    

Students also took issue with the fact that many of the closest grocery stores are over a mile away. They felt this is exacerbated by the fact that the food available in Kaplan’s Café is often expensive and a lot of the food and beverages sold in Kate’s Corner Store are processed or sugary. Students also felt that the hours in the Café and Corner Store are inconvenient and inconsistent, meaning that students who can’t get to Andrew Commons when it’s open have limited eating options.  

Other students expressed frustration with the way the Lawrence University administration interacts with students and feel that they are exploited by the university, especially for student advocacy organizations. Senior Ezra Marker, former president of COLORES, the queer advocacy group on campus, stated that they often feel burdened with diversity work. They also feel that Lawrence’s support of marginalized students is performative.  

Senior Alex Chand, former chair of the Lawrence University Disability Working Group (LUDWiG), agreed and added that Lawrence is decades behind on accessibility, which she says makes disabled students feel unwelcome.  

Marker added that as a non-binary student, it feels like Lawrence students are used for promotional purposes by Lawrence. Marker said that it made them feel exploited and not truly welcome at Lawrence.  

“They only wanted me on this campus so they could show off to prospective students and potential donors that they’re diverse, using my face,” said Marker.  

Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Eric Mayes commented that these issues are longstanding and will require more work, which will take time. He feels that every member of the Lawrence community needs to be involved in making these changes, because some of these issues are outside of his purview. 

Retention has also been an issue in the conservatory. Keri Wozniak and Jaidin Thiex, former conservatory students who left in 2021, felt that the music theory course was Eurocentric, inaccessible for students without strong music backgrounds and intended to weed out “bad” musicians, and did not feel that Dean of the Conservatory Brian Pertl was accessible to discuss these issues.  

Wozniak and Thiex also had issues with a professor and Wozniak felt that Pertl blamed these issues on their communication skills. Wozniak added that they didn’t feel that Lawrence helped them to pursue a path outside of the conservatory. These experiences led them to feel that they were disrespected and ignored by the university, and they said that this attitude made them feel unwelcome at Lawrence, causing them to decide to transfer.  

Pertl, for his part, apologized to students who felt that he was inaccessible. He acknowledged that work is being done to make the conservatory more accessible, citing the theory requirement being taken out for a Bachelor of Arts in Music degree. He also cited the recently implemented Bachelor of Musical Arts degree, which he feels is more inclusive of non-Western genres.  

Pertl addressed students who feel the course is Eurocentric and mentioned partnering with Black and Brown musicians to create individualized curricula where students from different backgrounds can explore their cultures in music. He believes that it is important for students to see people like them reflected in the curriculum.  

Erin O’Brien and Hanna Dougherty, former Lawrence students, attributed their departure from Lawrence to financial issues.  

O’Brien lacked the same family support that other students have and felt that Lawrence requiring students to live on-campus during the school year but not providing housing that met their living needs during break was unfair and made their financial situation worse. Dougherty’s expected out-of-pocket costs doubled from first to sophomore year, and a series of payments they hadn’t prepared for and couldn’t pay led to them being placed on administrative leave. 

O’Brien feels that Lawrence didn’t care about the issues they were dealing with until it had the potential to affect the institution’s statistics. O’Brien and Dougherty both feel that Lawrence is not well-equipped to handle students from lower-income backgrounds, such as themselves.  

“Being put on leave felt like they were giving up on me,” said Dougherty.  

Financial Aid Director Ryan Gebler stated that out-of-pocket expenses are not supposed to drastically increase when paperwork is filled out correctly, but he acknowledged that there could have been an issue that led to this.  

Furthermore, he added that staff advocate for students, and that policies are limited by Lawrence’s resources. However, he stressed that financial aid policies are intended to be as fair and equitable as possible. Nonetheless, Gebler encouraged struggling students to come to them and share their stories.  

Students also noticed a lack of communication between departments they went to when they needed help. O’Brien experienced this when they were getting good grades and struggling financially, and the Deans and Registrar weren’t aware of their financial situation. They also said that it wasn’t always clear who they needed to go to for help in the Financial Aid office. Most staff members interviewed agreed that communication needs to be improved. 

Vice President for Student Life Chris Card responded to many of the concerns raised by students. Card feels that a combination of campus culture, college affordability, challenges with Lawrence’s size and location, COVID-19 and a lack of certain educational opportunities all contribute to lower retention. He stated that connections and early interventions with struggling students are ways in which the Office of Student Life can positively affect retention rates.  

A lot of the issues students struggle with are national issues that are out of Card’s purview, such as their immigration status restricting certain opportunities or Title IX procedures being politicized by the federal government.  

In response to students who feel disrespected by the administration, Card stated that he sees Lawrence as a relational place and sees a level of what he calls “healthy tension” between students and administrators in small liberal arts colleges. He wants students and administrators to feel comfortable engaging with each other when there are disagreements and wishes that students came to administrators with requests for conversation instead of lists of demands.  

However, he acknowledged that students who have unaddressed issues often feel that they have to demand instead of ask. Card believes that students, faculty and staff all have a role to play in retention and believes that a better sense of connection on campus will help facilitate that.  

“Fundamentally, we are in agreement,” said Card. “Tactically is where we have some differences.”  

Lewis and Dean of Academic Success Monita Mohammadian Gray have been working on strategies to improve the retention rate, including the existing early alerts team, which works with departments around campus to identify struggling students and connect them with the resources they need. In addition to strengthening current retention efforts, they are also looking to improve retention rates among student populations that are disproportionately impacted.  

Lewis is working to implement future strategies to track student success but added that these systems can only work if everyone commits to using them. Lewis added that many of these efforts are already in place, and her role is to coordinate and strengthen these efforts.  

In response to specific frustrations students had, Gray, a Lawrence alumna, commented that there were times when she was very frustrated and considered transferring. Gray also feels that by the time the exit interviews happen, it’s much harder to convince a student to stay, and she hopes to be able to connect with struggling students sooner rather than later.

Lewis added that not feeling supported in any aspect of your college experience can have a negative impact on that student being retained, and that she is working with offices across campus to ensure students are supported. Both Lewis and Gray, as well as former Vice President for Enrollment Ken Anselment, stated that retention is a team effort, in which students, faculty, and administrators all need to play a part.