Mills College will soon launch a task force aimed at increasing student retention.
President Jan Holmgren, who said student retention was one of her top three priorities during this year’s State of the College address, requested the task force take charge in making sure students stay at Mills through graduation. The committee will be led by Provost Sandra Greer and Dean of Students Joi Lewis.
The task force will focus on what works in terms of retention, including successful interactions on all levels, social and academic integration and student connections with affinity groups, as well as being able to identify with the College community as a whole, according to Lewis.
Alice Knudsen is in charge of tracking the number of students who leave Mills. She is the director of Institutional Research, Planning and Academic Assessment.
“Retention metrics are just numbers,” said Knudsen. “The percentage of students in a given cohort that return.”
Knudsen said this year they looked at first year students from fall 2008, and set a goal of retaining 80 percent of them.
The college was able to keep 144 of last year’s first year students, while 44 left.
“When we set the goal, we were at 71 percent,” said Knudsen. “We are now at 77 percent. We are doing well!”
Transfer students have a higher retention goal of 84 percent, with a realized retention of 80 percent, or 86 out of 107.
Knudsen said she is able to see patterns and do some deducing from the numbers she receives.
“For example,” said Knudsen, “the GPAs of first-year students who leave are far lower than the GPAs of those who stay.”
Officials have understood such data to represent academic struggle as a possible reason for students who leave Mills, and programs such as peer tutoring and other forms of academic support have been put in to place.
Knudsen also noted the importance of a “sense of belonging” as well as having a supportive campus environment.
“In general, a supportive campus environment is something that we need to work on because we found out from administering the NSSE [National Survey of Student Engagement] survey in spring 2008 that we aren’t doing as well there as other institutions,” said Knudsen.
The Division of Student Life is working to improve this notion of a supportive campus environment.
The department conducted a survey of students last semester as part of the Narrative Project, which focused on students’ experiences at Mills. The information that was gathered was then used to brainstorm ways the College might work to retain students.
“For the most part students really felt like their experiences at Mills benefited their personal growth,” said Diane Ketelle, associate Professor in the School of Education. Ketelle, along with a few students, analyzed the information gathered from the survey.
Ketelle said one theme that emerged in the analysis was students who expressed difficulty identifying outside of a specific group.
According to Ketelle, many students said they were able to feel connected through affinity, forging bonds with people through similar interests, including majors, clubs and ethnicities, but did not always feel connected on a broader scale to the Mills community.
“What we found was that those were ways they came together on campus, but they wanted to identify more as a Mills student,” said Ketelle.
According to Lewis, the retention rate has increased for first-time first-year students continuing in to
their second year.
“We are headed in the right direction by moving our first-year retention rate by three percent in just the last year,” said Lewis.
She also mentioned the diversity of students at Mills.
“We are clearly identified amongst our comparison schools as enviable because of the demographics of our student body,” said Lewis. “However, with this great opportunity comes the challenge of ensuring that Mills students are both retained, and persist to graduation.”
Lewis also said she is setting up a time to talk with ASMC to share the data and stories of students.
DSL has already begun reaching out to students through activities such as Dancing with the Dean, Dining with the Dean and the Soup and Substance Program.
Knudsen stressed the importance of student surveys for understanding student retention because surveys show how satisfied or dissatisfied students are with many aspects of their college experience at Mills.
“The surveys are mostly administered via email and most take 30 minutes or less to respond to,” said Knudsen.