Administration addresses recent retention rates

Chelsea Johnson

This may come as a shock to some, but running Lawrence University involves more than just providing for students day to day. Far more important than what Andrews is serving today is the issue of retention rates. These important numbers are a measurement of how many students return from year to year, and studying them provides unique insight into how the University works.

For the past ten years, Lawrence’s average retention rates between freshmen and sophomore year have been between 87 and 91 percent, and the retention rate of students between their sophomore and junior year has been between 79 and 85 percent. These rates have risen since the 10 years before that: In those preceding 10 years, the rate for first year retention was 82 and 87 percent, and two year retention was at 70 and 76 percent.

Lawrence’s retention rates, when compared to similar schools, are “pretty much par for the course,” according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Ken Anselment. However, comparing Lawrence to other small liberal arts schools can be statistically questionable because of the conservatory, a unique competent of Lawrence that few schools our size have, meaning comparisons to other schools may not be valid, he warns.

Lawrence finds it difficult to even compare to itself from year to year, as retention rate percentages can fluctuate with sometimes random patterns.

“We’re dealing with relatively small numbers of students,” Anselment said. “It’s not a statistically valid sample size.”

The small numbers of non-returning students means it is hard to find any sort of trend for why people leave. Students leaving Lawrence cite homesickness, academic, financial, personal and social issues as their reason for transferring, but no two students are the same, meaning retention rates sometimes fluctuate without discernible cause.

“A lot of this is reading tea leaves,” Assistant Professor of Art History and Chair of the Faculty Committee on Enrollment Elizabeth Carlson said.

However, despite the wide diversity of reasons students leave Lawrence, faculty looking at retention rates have found two trends that have been consistent throughout the years. On average, students who leave between their sophomore and junior year are likely to be undeclared; retention rates for freshmen to sophomore and sophomore to junior year are much higher in comparison.

“The attrition rate for students between freshman and sophomore year is relatively low,” Carlson said. “Because of Freshman Studies, there’s a great sense of community — you’re in it together. However, some students might lose this sense of community in their sophomore year.”

During freshman year, there is more institutional support: From Freshman Studies to required advising meetings, freshmen often feel like part of a bigger academic community. However, with over 50 percent of sophomores being undeclared majors, sophomores may be more likely to feel disconnected from their community and unsure of a direction. These students may then need a little extra institutional support.

The Faculty Committee on Enrollment has recently started two initiatives that address this gap between sophomore and junior year.

“[These initiatives] are risk free,” Carlson said. “It will be interesting to see if they influence retention rates.”

The first initiative is the departmental open houses, informal gatherings that can include presentations by seniors on their senior projects, information about internships and careers, chances to talk to departmental professors and plenty of opportunity for freshmen and sophomores to look  at these majors  and begin to make connections and find appropriate advisors.

The second initiative is suggesting advisors hold advising meetings for sophomores during Winter Term.

“This would be a chance for advisors to touch base with sophomores and have conversations about curriculum plans,” Carlson said.

In addition to these changes, the committee is undertaking the creation of a predictability model with the help of William Skinner, director of research administration. A model like this would better help Lawrence predict a realistic retention rate for the next year.

 Even with these changes, Lawrence’s retention rate will never be 100 percent, meaning Lawrence will always be mindful of its retention rate. Whatever they may be, retention rates are important in helping Lawrence adequately plan for the next year, especially given Lawrence’s small student body.

“When you’re dealing with a thin margin of error, the better you can plan how many students may leave, the better you can plan how many students to admit for the next year,” Anselment said.

At a school as small as Lawrence, the university’s financial stability depends a lot on tuition, so predicting retention rates is important to Lawrence’s financial well-being. However, at the heart of the matter, Lawrence’s main concern is not so impersonal.

“In the end, you want to attract and enroll students who find Lawrence a right fit,” Anselment said. By focusing on these retention rates, Lawrence is better able to attract and keep these students, creating a better learning and social environment for all current Lawrentians