Nancy Johnson

How to help students stay and succeed

November 1, 2007

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By Stuart Colcleugh

The numbers are sobering: more than 30 per cent of SFU’s undergraduates leave before completing a degree — 22 per cent before their second year — and all but 9.5 per cent leave voluntarily.

That’s about average for North American universities, says Nancy Johnston, senior director of student learning and retention. But average is no longer acceptable at SFU, particularly with declining high-school graduation rates, increased local and foreign competition and the lure of a strong job market.

"There’s no question that if you create a more supportive and positive environment people get engaged and they will (a) stay, and (b) do better," says Johnston. "It’s not brain surgery."

During the past 16 months, virtually every faculty and department concerned about increasing student retention has been bolstering its academic-advising resources, improving its first-year programs, adding new student-orientation programs and/or increasing the level of personal and learning support.

"SFU is moving toward enrollment management, which requires that we focus on both recruitment and retention to ensure that we maintain a diverse population of high-quality students," says Nello Angerilli, VP-students and international. "The rate at which this notion is being adopted in every faculty at every level is truly impressive."

Some of the initiatives include:

  • Student Success (see Pulling back from the brink) a second-chance pilot program for applied science and international students who are failing or academically distressed and would otherwise be required to withdraw.
  • A mentoring program for all 800 new Faculty of Science students. Each student this fall has been assigned a faculty member to identify areas where they may need help and refer them to resources such as personal and academic counselling, course planning and academic advisors.
  • A Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences position devoted exclusively to enrolment and retention and other faculty initiatives such as the pilot of a new peer-mentoring program for first-year economics students.
  • Two full-time retention-oriented employees hired at SFU Business, which also maintains a wide range of initiatives designed to keep students connected and supported, including 15 business clubs, student conferences and case competitions.

Students withdraw for many reasons, says Johnston, from academic, financial and personal problems to loneliness, cultural isolation and revised academic or career plans.

But the majority do not leave because they’re incapable. "We’ve got an 84-per-cent average admission rate so they’re certainly smart enough," she says, "and many who leave have GPAs between 3.0 and 3.5.

"Top schools such as Harvard and MIT have incredible student assistance programs and they have extremely high retention rates. We can do the same, if not better."

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