student success

Three initial considerations for planning and evaluating first-year college student retention programs

Mari Normyle

Assistant Vice President for Retention Solutions

March 17, 2015

Are you new to your role as a leader of first-year programming? Do you know what your incoming students require to be successful and what resources to recommend? Have you studied the specific needs of diverse student populations within the larger cohort? Do you know how effective your existing programs have been?

If these questions relate to your situation, you’re not alone. While attending the 2015 National Conference on the First-Year Experience last month in Dallas, I talked with colleagues from hundreds of campuses across the country.  What was top-of-mind for most was how to be more proactive in planning for incoming students and more timely in responding to students’ needs and requests.

Here are three recommendations that can help you with these tasks:

1) Use data to develop and inform your program goals and outcomes.

  • What is your fall-to-spring persistence rate? What is fall-to-fall retention for your freshmen? What goal would you like to reach (for example, a 2-5 percent increase in persistence or retention)?
  • Compare your persistence and retention data with those from similar institutions. Utilize data from our 2015 Student Retention Indicators Benchmark Report.
  • How much revenue could your campus gain for each student you retain? Knowing this can make a powerful argument for getting retention to the top of the agenda. Try using a retention revenue estimator to determine that figure.

2) Determine the ‘profile’ of your incoming cohort of students.

  • What strengths are your students bringing with them to college? What are the barriers to your students’ success? For example, can you identify the students who have strong family support or have higher levels of financial concerns? Many campuses use motivational assessments such as the College Student Inventory to assess the strengths of incoming students and identify which students are most at risk.
  • Who are your targeted populations? Do you serve a large number of first-generation students, veterans, or adult learners? How do the needs of these students differ from others? What programming will need to be offered that is unique to these populations and what do they have in common with other students?

3) Create a plan of action.

  • Based on your students’ needs, who can you partner with on campus (specifically, which campus departments) to provide relevant resources to meet your intended goals and outcomes for student success? Many first-year student programs have benefited from strengthening collaborations between academic and student affairs, a process that often requires the involvement of senior leadership.  Partnering with Institutional Research can also be very beneficial in documenting needs and outcomes.
  • Based on students’ needs, goals, and outcomes, what strategic programming initiatives can you and your partners put in place to take your first-year experience program to the next level? Answering this question may require stepping back to get a better perspective, perhaps through a planning retreat or a series of meetings. It can also be helpful to study models that are in use on other campuses by attending conferences and webinars.
  • If you are looking for more specific information on improving your first-year program, consider attending the “Retention for Rookies” session and other retention sessions available at this summer’s 2015 National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing, and Retention in Boston.

Have a question right now about first-year programs? Feel free to contact me. I’ll be happy to share what I’ve learned from working with campuses across the country here at Ruffalo Noel Levitz as we’ve worked together on projects for retention research and assessment. You can reach me by phone at 1-800-876-1117, ext. 8394, or by email.


About the Author

Dr. Mari K. Normyle, assistant vice president for retention solutions, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America supporting student success and retention efforts through student motivation assessment and early alert programs. With more...

Read more about Mari's experience and expertise

Reach Mari by e-mail at Mari.Normyle@RuffaloNL.com.


Read More In:
Student Success