UT’s vital signs are good: The university’s enrolling its best students ever, research funding is on the rise, and alumni and friends are unusually generous in their support. The next logical step toward realizing the university’s full potential is to increase the number of graduates it turns out to fuel Tennessee’s future workforce.

Governor Phil Bredesen repeatedly has pointed to the advantages of a -better–educated population. UT couldn’t agree more and, indeed, it has consistently led all state institutions in graduation rates. But as a major research university, UT plays on a national stage and has to compete with such research universities as Georgia and Florida.

In that arena, UT loses more students along the path to graduation than similar research universities. The largest loss is between the freshman and sophomore years, and those students who leave drastically lower the chances they’ll ever earn a degree. The state of Tennessee, with one of the nation’s lowest percentages of college-educated citizens, has had enough of this problem–enough to know it’s got to be fixed.

Fix it we will, says UT Knoxville’s provost, Bob Holub. Less than 6 months on the job, Holub zeroed in on UT Knoxville’s 81.7 percent freshman-to–sophomore retention rate (the University of Florida, in comparison, retains 93 percent) and the relationship of retention to graduation rates.

“The best public universities have the best retention and graduation rates,” the former University of California–Berkeley dean says, and he should know, coming from a premier institution where he oversaw curriculum and instruction for 18,000 arts and sciences students and led campuswide enrichment programs. “We owe it to the citizens and the students to offer excellent education. We want students to stay here and earn degrees.”

But, he says, the university has some ground to make up: “We do poorly in graduation rates compared with our peers. Four years ago, the peer average for six-year graduation was seventy-one-point-eight percent; UT was at fifty-eight-point-eight percent.”

Of course, students with higher ACTs and high-school GPAs are the most successful. But even the lottery scholarships, which have helped bring more of the best students to UT, haven’t increased UT’s retention rate much.

“Students entering with higher ACT scores and high-school GPAs are retained at rates significantly above those with lower ACT scores and high-school GPAs,” Holub says. “But even in the groups that we retain at the highest levels, we still do not reach the level of retention that is the average for Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and North Carolina State.” Holub won’t commit to a specific timeframe but says within a couple of years, UT should match retention rates at Georgia and Florida.

The best way to keep more students in school, experts agree, is to make a big university feel like a small school. Students have to have personal connections to each other and to the faculty to succeed. With that in mind, Holub has begun patching some of the institutional holes students had been slipping through:

  • He’s initiated a series of freshman seminars to connect groups of first-year students with senior members of the faculty.
  • Changes are afoot at the Student Success Center, where staff members now require at-risk students to attend help sessions.
  • Holub has assembled staff and faculty from all parts of the university to inventory the first-year experience, survey departing students, and recommend solutions.
  • He’s questioned entrance requirements for some popular programs and proposed a plan to sequence science courses.

He’s also been outspoken about the problem. “Someone has to take responsibility,” he says. “This problem has to be dealt with centrally. We’re not inventing anything new–we’re just using best practices from other universities.”

Holub also has brought talent to bear on the problem–UT Knoxville talent, not outside consultants. The new vice-provost, Todd Diacon–formerly head of history–has a major responsibility for student retention, and nationally recognized retention expert Dr. Terrell Strayhorn of UT Knoxville’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences is devoting his considerable talents as a special assistant to the provost. Also at the decision-making level is Dr. Ruth Darling, assistant vice-provost and director of the Student Success Center.

Strayhorn has an insightful observation: the university has undergone a sea change in its freshman classes. ACT score averages rose from 23.5 in 2001 to 25.8 last year. The students have changed, he says, but the university hasn’t: “UT has gone from a virtually open-admissions school to a fairly selective school without examining its processes. Today’s student is different from an open-admissions student.”

Strayhorn says UT should re-engineer the first-year experience. Holub’s freshman seminars (credit or noncredit courses on such topics as “Water [and Life] on Mars”) are a step in that direction; and Strayhorn also advocates more learning communities where students who live close to one another in a residence hall also take classes together. Social integration, Strayhorn says, is arguably more important to students than academic integration. A student feeling disengaged and isolated is a recipe for a student dropout, he says.

In the academic realm, he mentions several strategies that have been successful at other universities–peer mentoring (students helping students, similar to tutoring), student involvement in faculty research, professional advising, and programs to enhance teaching so the teaching faculty connects better with students.

Holub, too, recognizes the value of integrating the social and academic parts of the student experience. “We will want to see whether we can integrate any academic programs [including the freshman seminars] with housing or dining,” he says, “and whether there are any campus initiatives we can undertake to foster a ‘culture of belonging’ at the university.

“One example of what has been done on other campuses is clusters of courses built around common housing [the floor in a residence hall, for example]. Another possible avenue for consideration involves electronic communities. Right now Facebook is extremely popular with undergraduates. Could we not try to establish electronic communities that might even lead to nonelectronic communities and that might make the students feel part of something going on at UT Knoxville?”

The university has tried in the past to determine why students drop out, but the research findings have been inconclusive. This year, Darling and Dr. Tammy Kahrig, also of the Student Success Center, have gotten some good data by surveying students who quit school after their first semester. For comparison purposes, Darling and Kahrig also surveyed students who completed their freshman year. Among those who dropped out, each of the top five reasons for leaving involved feelings of loneliness and disengagement:

  1. UT Knoxville is too large and impersonal.
  2. I had trouble adjusting personally to the university.
  3. I did not feel like I fit in.
  4. I was homesick.
  5. Knoxville is too far from home.

What’s the answer? “Think small,” Darling says–construct small internal communities where students know one another and feel supported. The Student Success Center is one of those places where students who are struggling can grab a lifeline.

“We’re a one-stop shop that provides information and resources in the areas of academic advising, tutoring and academic support, service and community, and student life,” Darling says. SSC also coordinates First Year Studies, an established program that helps freshmen adapt to campus life.

If a student’s first-semester GPA puts him or her in the “at risk” category, the Student Success Center contacts the student for a mandatory workshop. The center also provides supplemental instruction in math, where specially trained juniors and seniors lead three or four sessions a week to help the mathematically challenged.

The center helps students with study skills and time management, as well. “Some students never had to study in high school,” Darling says. When they find themselves in a more challenging academic environment and out of the family nest with no rules about when or how long to study, they may stumble.

The SSC’s message, Darling says, is We want you to be successful. The center has seen more traffic every semester since it opened 2 years ago, but it alone can’t solve the retention problem. “We want to create a culture of retention. The Student Success Center can’t be the only unit concerned,” Darling says. “It has to be a collaborative effort that includes Student Affairs and the faculty.”

It’s vitally important that students connect with the institution in the classroom, she says. Those who don’t live in residence halls are even more likely to be disengaged than those who live on campus. “They [off-campus residents] have full agendas of their own,” she says. “That’s why connecting in the classroom is so important.”

Darling points to established campus programs that make a difference in retaining specific groups of students. Expanding them will spread their benefits over a broader base. “We have some good programs, and as we analyze data, we can target programs for the larger mass of students.”

Strayhorn too is optimistic.

“UT Knoxville is a great school that does many things well. We need to be daring enough to question what we do, try new approaches, and let go of what doesn’t work.”

Tennessee Needs More Graduates

Keeping students in school and seeing them through to graduation is a priority for both UT Knoxville and the state of Tennessee. The university is mounting a major initiative, championed by its new provost, Bob Holub, to increase student retention and graduation rates.

“If more than twenty percent of the students are leaving after their first year, we are wasting their time and energy, the time and energy of the faculty and staff, and the resources that they consume while they are students for one or two semesters.”

Vice Provost Todd Diacon agrees and adds that making every effort to graduate more students is simply “the right thing to do.”

The state of Tennessee needs more college graduates to compete successfully for new businesses, and the UT system has mounted a major initiative to do its part. Just over 21 percent of Tennesseans have college degrees, compared with 25.6 percent nationally. A college graduate earns, on average, $14,000 more a year than a person with a high-school diploma only. More college-educated Tennesseans would give the state a higher average income, a better standard of living, and greater competitiveness.