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Students Help Devise New Retention Strategy

Thanks to the great research of three Haslam College of Business student interns, we’ve found a segment of at-risk first-time freshmen who were previously falling through the cracks—and we’re implementing strategies to intervene more quickly to help them get academic assistance to boost their chances of staying at UT and completing their degrees.

Last year, the Office of the Provost enlisted the help of three business analytics interns—undergraduates Bryce Curtsinger and Tanner Martin, who both graduated in May, and graduate student Brady Gail.

The students reviewed three years’ worth of student success data. They found that student retention odds start to slip earlier than we had thought: a student is at increased risk of dropping out after failing to complete even one course.

Specifically, our interns confirmed something that Assistant Provost and Director of Institutional Research and Assessment Denise Gardner suspected from looking at preliminary numbers: students who fail to earn class credit because they take NCs (no credit) and Ws (course withdrawal) in challenging courses are at a higher risk of leaving the university before completing their degrees.

While it sounds like something that should have been easy to figure out, it wasn’t. Here’s why: Until now, we’ve primarily used GPA to pinpoint at-risk students. That method of filtering for struggling students is flawed because Ws (four of which are allowed during a student’s time at UT) and NCs (unlimited) do not factor into the GPA. Consequently, a student could fail to earn credit for numerous courses and still appear to be doing well.

Compounding this problem, students in some of our gateway foundational courses—including courses in English, math, and foreign languages—automatically get an NC if they don’t achieve an A, B, or C. Lower grades are not given in those courses; students who get an NC and want credit for the course must retake the course until they earn a C or better.

Students who fail to get credit in one of these gateway courses could be destined for failure unless they get some academic assistance.

On a more positive note, the interns found that students who flounder during their first semester tend to persevere if they’re able to rebound academically in their second semester. This finding reinforces the importance of earlier intervention.

Based on what we’ve learned, we’ve already started to take action:

  • We’re sharing the findings with our student success team and advisors so they can get to these students faster and offer some form of remediation. This effort is already under way.
  • Starting this spring, we’ve revised our system of warning students who are failing to make satisfactory academic progress. Federal, state, and university regulations require that a student make satisfactory academic progress toward their degree—that is, that they maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0 and successfully complete 67 percent of their total attempted hours—to retain their financial aid. In the past, we checked students’ SAP at the end of each year. We’re now checking each semester and alerting students who are in danger.
  • We’re continuing to study our current system of awarding NCs and Ws to see what we might change to improve student retention.
  • We’re enlisting the help of two more interns this spring—Derek Shambo, a grad student in business analytics, and Karson Stone, a graduate student in industrial engineering—to help us identify other segments of at-risk students and develop strategies for connecting them with resources to promote student success.