What keeps students from finishing their college degrees? How can we help them complete? Bonnie Becker is leading a data-driven effort to find answers to these questions.
Completing a bachelor’s degree can take four years, then again it may not. Some students start, but then stop only to start again. Some start and stop. “We need to normalize the different pathways that students take through college,” said Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success Bonnie Becker. “There are lots of different approaches that work for students with different needs and goals.”
Retention and graduation rates are key benchmarks for universities. These numbers are often used to gauge an institution’s success, but that approach minimizes the individual narrative and doesn’t answer key questions including why a particular student stopped out.
Becker has spent the past few years looking into why students leave UW Tacoma. The one-year retention rate at UW Tacoma is currently 85% and the six-year graduation rate is 76.2%. The one-year retention rate refers to the percentage of students who started in fall and are still enrolled in the subsequent fall. “So, of the students who started at UW Tacoma in the fall of 2019, 85% of them were still with us in the fall of 2020,” said Becker.
As associate vice chancellor, Becker is tasked with finding ways to improve these numbers and that starts with understanding them. “There’s this great quote by a well-known scholar named Vincent Tinto,” said Becker. “He says, ‘retention is the end result of a good educational experience.’”
An entire field of study is dedicated to understanding how to help students persevere to graduation. This information is valuable if not specific to the UW Tacoma community. Becker started to dig into the available data to see the story it told. “We looked for really basic predictors of a student who’s likely to leave the institution,” she said. “There are some really clear signs that a student is not returning. For example, it’s time for them to register and they haven’t registered yet or they need to lift a hold in order to register and haven’t done that yet.”
This data provided Becker with a direction that eventually led to the idea of hiring completion coaches to provide personalized outreach to these students. “A lot of outreach happens on a very local level on campus which is great, but also creates a system that is disconnected,” said Becker. “We’re getting bigger and we need to add capacity while not breaking what’s working.”
Student Voice Research Report
UW Tacoma partnered with Tacoma Community College (TCC), the Foundation for Tacoma Students, and Degrees of Change on a project to understand why students leave college. Becker and Senior Director, Student Transitions and Success Amanda Figueroa played an active role throughout the year-long process. Interviews were conducted with 53 students who left TCC or UW Tacoma before completing their degree. The findings were compiled into a report called: “Why Do Students Leave College? Student Voice Research Report.” The goal of the project to better understand the barriers students face to completing their education and to develop strategies to help them succeed.
Marion LaRocque and TeyAnjulee Leon returned to campus in May 2020, this time as staff members. LaRocque graduated from UW Tacoma in 2018 with a double major in environmental science and mathematics. Leon earned her master’s in interdisciplinary studies at UW Tacoma the same year.
The pair work as completion coaches for the university. “We help students who left UW Tacoma but are thinking of coming back to finish their degree,” said Leon. “We also support current students through any hiccups that might come up.”
When it comes to current students, LaRocque describes her position as that of a connector. “We make sure students understand there are a lot of groups on campus that provide support,” she said. “Say, someone is struggling with finances, then we’ll get them connected to financial aid or to the Office of Student Advocacy & Support.”
Data is an essential component of this outreach. Becker and her team work with the Office of Institutional Research as well as the Office of the Registrar at UW Tacoma to receive information regarding different populations including students who haven’t registered or who have a hold on their account. Becker, LaRocque and Leon also collect data about former students who have expressed an interest in returning to campus.
Outreach, in either instance, can take different forms. Some cases are referred to advisors. In other cases, LaRocque or Leon reach out via email, phone or even text. Becker, LaRocque and Leon also developed micro surveys that are sent to current and former students. These surveys consist of one, maybe two questions. “For instance, we might ask if a student knows they have a hold,” said Becker. A few things can happen once a response is received. Another email may be sent to that person with follow-up questions or information about how to lift a hold. A phone call could be arranged with one of the completion coaches or that individual could instead be referred to another office or to their advisor.
These micro surveys have been an effective tool for finding out how best to help current students as well as returning students or those who have expressed interest in returning to the university. “The response rates are between 25% and 50%,” In the past three months Becker and her team reached out to more than 400 students. “Of the students that we heard back from more than half said they hadn’t spoken to anybody about the issue(s) they were experiencing,” said Becker.
As for former students, these surveys have yielded valuable insight into why some students leave campus. “There are a lot of reasons but some of the more common include financial issues, mental health or a desire to wait until more in-person classes are available,” said LaRocque. “We totally understand if people need to take a break, we just want to make sure they know we’re here if they need us.”
Becker is currently working with a tri-campus team to develop an exit survey that is meant to collect more details about how the university can better support students. “Our goals are both to understand why students have left, and to reach out with help if students would like to return,” she said.
Institutions can be siloed places where it can be difficult for one unit or department to know what another is doing. This is an issue when the goal is to create a campus community focused on bettering the learning atmosphere. “We’re committed to working with partners on campus,” said Leon. “As an alumna, I think our faculty and staff are working to create a place where students know they can come and be successful.”
Becker, LaRocque and Leon know the value of higher education and of UW Tacoma. “Research shows that regional, comprehensive universities are incredible drivers of upward mobility especially for people from under-represented populations,” said Becker.
Financial considerations are important, but they aren’t everything. Becker has played an active role at UW Tacoma for 14 years. Her thinking informs everything from the opportunities she creates for students at the Becker Lab to her help guiding the university’s strategic plan. LaRocque and Leon are alumni who graduated and then found their way back. Why?
LaRocque came to the United States from Australia in 2009. She spent five years in community college before transferring to UW Tacoma. LaRocque developed a sense of belonging while at community college. “When I got to UWT, I felt that same sense of ‘you are one of us now and we’ll take care of you,” she said. “I’m incredibly grateful for that and this is a way I can give back.”
Leon echoed LaRocque’s sentiment. “This is my home,” she said. “These are my people.”
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