The University of Maine has seen a steady increase in the number of first-year students in recent years. Yet according to information from the Office of the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs & Provost, between 20 and 25 percent of first-year students do not return to UMaine for their second year. A forum was held last week to address the issue of student retention beyond the first year.
On Thursday, Sept. 27 from 3 to 4:30 p.m., a faculty forum was held in the Bangor Room of the Memorial Union, where Provost Jeffrey Hecker shared data and analyses about student retention, as well as a draft proposal for how administrators, faculty and staff can improve first year students’ academic and social success.
Most first-year students are either coming straight out of high school or are succeeding a gap year. This means that it is frequently the students’ first time living away from home, living with strangers and meeting a more diverse population. All of this plays a role in creating a positive experience for the student and there are many ways to measure these factors.
Provost Hecker said that although UMaine has an intense focus on research as a land, sea and space grant university, its main mission is to educate students.
“We are not an elite institution who only accepts the top students. It makes our job challenging sometimes but it is what the University of Maine is all about,” Hecker said.
Students who are first-generation, Pell Grant-eligible or come from underrepresented populations have some of the lowest rates of retention.
According to an exploratory analysis written by the UMaine Office of Institutional Research in 2018, “First-generation students are less likely than non-first-generation students to return after their first year (67 versus 78 percent, respectively), and those who did return are less likely to have earned 30 or more credits by the beginning of their second year (62 versus 69 percent). Pell recipients have a lower retention rate than non-Pell students (72 versus 77 percent) and further, they are less likely to return their second year with at least 30 credits (61 versus 71 percent).”
Provost Hecker’s plan is multi-faceted. It encourages faculty to think about restructuring class curricula, working with the Academic Affairs Committee of the Faculty Senate to ensure that every student has the opportunity to participate in a high-quality first-year success course, as well as implementing other practices and softwares that other universities have been successful with.
In the past, UMaine has implemented programs such as the Engaged Black Bear Initiative, which is a program where students can earn E-Badges for participating in different activities in areas such as service, community-based research and leadership, civic engagement and volunteerism. This program was launched in the spring of 2015.
The exploratory analysis noted a strong correlation between academic performance and likelihood of continuing education past the first year.
“There is a strong relationship between first-semester performance and retention. Fewer than half of students having a first-semester GPA of 1.5 or below return the following fall,” the study said. “In contrast, 86 percent of students earning above a 2.5 GPA do so. The withdrawal rate of students with a first-semester GPA between 1.5 and 2.5 is eight percentage points lower than those who earned above a 2.5 GPA. Less than 50 percent of returning students who earned a first-semester GPA of 2.5 or lower return with at least 30 credits.”
Many factors come into play when looking at first-year student retention, and some members of the UMaine administration are aware they need to take steps to keep students on a path of success during their time in college.
“The University of Maine is committed to providing the best academic and interpersonal experience possible as we strive to develop engaged, active and successful students who will make a real difference in Maine, the region and beyond,” Provost Hecker states on his UMaine webpage.
For students or members of the faculty who would like to share ideas and resources or volunteer, the Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Robin Delcourt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about this forum and the data mentioned above can be found on the Office of the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost website.