Cardinal Stritch University (Wisconsin)

Learn how this university is raising its freshman retention rates 2 percentage points or more per year

"We have increased first-to-second-year retention 9 percentage points since using the CSI and MYSA as part of our comprehensive retention efforts." —Maria Von Arx, Retention Coordinator

Background: Types of students served
This case study focuses on the retention efforts with the traditional freshman population at Cardinal Stritch University (Cardinal Stritch), a Catholic, Franciscan institution awarding associate’s through doctoral degrees. The university’s traditional freshman class has approximately 175 students with a retention rate hovering around 70 percent. A snapshot of the freshman class showed 51 percent were students of color; 36 percent were first generation students; 46 percent low income students; 63 percent lived on campus; 38 percent were athletes; and 31 percent needed remedial education.

Student success efforts
Cardinal Stritch developed a number of retention initiatives to help its students be successful, including a Freshmen Advising Continuum and utilization of assessments from Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s Retention Management System Plus: the College Student Inventory (CSI) and the Mid-Year Student Assessment (MYSA) surveys.

Students first learn about the university’s advising process during their new student registration day, which is a summer orientation program that introduces the students to the university, the curriculum, and registering for fall courses. During registration, advisors introduce the CSI in detail and explain how the survey will be used during advising appointments. Students then receive an invitation to complete the survey at the end of July, and will continue to receive weekly invites, until they have completed the survey or, failing that, through the end of October. The advisor or peer advisor then makes follow-up calls to the student to make an appointment and to remind the student of the survey if they have not yet completed it.

First advising meeting and follow-up
The first hour-long advising appointments begin in mid-September. Students get to meet their advisor, review the results of their CSI, and talk through their areas of strength and challenge. Students are encouraged to mark updates to their scores if they feel they are more comfortable in a particular area since taking the CSI. Referrals to different service areas are also made at this time. Students who receive a referral receive a follow-up email from the service area within the week, and they also receive a follow-up call from the advisor during the following week to make sure that they have connected with the service area or that the issue was resolved.

A quick note about the completion of the CSI surveys: students do not have to complete the survey prior to meeting with their advisor, but they do need to meet with their advisor to receive registration clearance for the spring term. This helps with the CSI completion rate, since students are asked to make the best use of their time by completing the survey. Advisors will often encourage students who have not completed the survey to take a few minutes of their appointment time and take the survey right in the Student Success Center.

Second advising meeting
Students meet with their advisor again in late November/early December to walk through the online registration process together. This is done either in a one-on-one appointment, or the student can RSVP to a registration “party” event where they are able to register one day early while receiving assistance from a team of advisors and peer advisors who are able to give advice on what to expect from different courses. This presents an opportunity to ensure early registration for a larger group of students while creating capacity with advisors to spend additional time with those students who might need that extra bit of assistance.

Third advising meeting—or attend a workshop
Immediately following Christmas break, students receive an invitation from their advisors to complete the MYSA survey, and they will continue to receive invites weekly until the survey is completed. Starting mid-February, students will receive an email with a link to their MYSA results and a link to a RSVP form to sign up for a MYSA workshop.

Students are required to attend at least one workshop or have a one-on-one advising appointment, but students can attend as many workshops as they want. Workshop topics are based on the summary data that the university pulls from the MYSA each year in which students have indicated their needs for assistance. Some examples of MYSA workshops include: “Utilizing technology, aka, your phone to get organized,”“Math for people who struggle with math,”“College success, the big picture,”and ”Show me the money.” The workshops are opened to the larger undergraduate population when the topics are beneficial for all students. After meeting the requirement, students are free to register online for fall classes, but they can also meet with an advisor if they need assistance.

Fourth advising meeting
In the last year, an additional step to this Advising Continuum has been added, as some larger-than-usual losses from the fall to spring of the students’ sophomore year were observed. Sophomore students will now be encouraged to meet with their advisors once more in the fall to craft and complete a long-range graduation plan based on their specific degree requirements. This allows students to complete a very structured advising approach with a big picture plan in hand. A pilot with a small group of students was conducted with plans to expand it to all sophomores the following fall.

Three key elements in this initiative
Three elements in Cardinal Stritch’s student success plan are important to highlight. First: meeting certain requirements in the continuum is tied to being allowed to register. The requirements are the key to ensure that the majority of students are being connected to the people and service areas that will support them throughout their college career. Students are never penalized for not completing their CSI or MYSA surveys, but they are highly encouraged to use their resources to the best of their ability. Whether or not students complete the surveys, they are required to meet with their advisor. Having several points where students build relationships with their advisors or peer advisors is critical in a small institution like Cardinal Stritch.

The second element is their early-alert system. This reporting system initially flags students based on attendance. A student appears on the report if they miss two or more class periods of a single course. Depending on the student’s risk assessment, these students will receive an email, a phone call, or be required to meet with an advisor or program director, in the case of learning community students. This allows advisors to catch academic issues early on and let students know about their options for withdrawing from courses, or assisting them with reaching out to the health center in case of illness, or to educate students about reaching out to their professors about missed courses and assignments.

Finally, all referrals coming from the CSI and MYSA appointments are tracked so the university can make sure that every first-year student has every opportunity to connect with the resources they need. This is done by using the university’s database management system to record actions for each type of referral. These referrals go to the to-do list of each referral area. The staff of the referral areas check for new referrals at least once a week and reach out to students. Once these actions are closed, an additional follow-up is added to the advisor’s to-do list to again reach out to the student. This hopefully ensures that students have all the information, introductions, and support to feel comfortable asking for assistance when they need it.

As a result of these initiatives, first-to-second year retention has increased from an all-time low of 64 percent with the 2011 freshman cohort to 71 percent with the 2012 cohort and (latest available figures) to 73 percent with the 2013 cohort. The lowest retention rate occurred with the 2011 freshmen class when the university was beginning its relationship with Ruffalo Noel Levitz, and the retention rate has increased by at least 2 percentage points per year since then.

A major part of this initiative is having a required First Year Advising Continuum. Students are connecting face-to-face with their advisors at least four times from when they enroll through the beginning of their sophomore year. Advisors feel like they know the students better, and more time is spent on building relationships. This developmental approach is more in line with the student population and student needs. In addition, new and creative, “ just-in-time” opportunities have been created by encouraging staff collaboration across departments.

Lessons learned
The approach described above has been used at Cardinal Stritch for three years and it has been have assessed each year. Here are the two biggest lessons learned. First, do not let capacity hinder large goals for student success or the impact that one can have on an individual student. Initially, one-on-one MYSA meetings were held with advisors and students similarly to the meetings held to review the CSI results, but developing the MYSA workshops allowed for the advisor’s time to be used more effectively and for collaborations across departments to develop workshops with service area experts. Most importantly, the workshops were providing students with the just-in-time learning opportunities that students were telling the university they needed.

Second, take full advantage of the ability to customize and use the Retention Data Center of the Retention Management System Plus. The data center is where all of the standard reports and data from the CSI and MYSA are stored. There really is a wealth of information that can be filtered to make sure the university understands its students and their needs. This has been a key part of the yearly trainings with advisors and the student success center staff to better serve their changing student population.

This case study is published with the permission of Cardinal Stritch University.  

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