UI group tackles retention rate, students’ financial issues

BY MORGAN OLSEN | MARCH 10, 2010 7:30 AM

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Students with unpaid university bills will soon be hearing from collection officials.

But they’re not the typical agents one might expect. They’re University of Iowa faculty, tasked with making sure the students are going to stick around.

The 20-member UI Early Intervention Implementation System Committee helps students who may be struggling at the university — emotionally, academically, and financially.

Already, in the group’s first year of existence, the university has seen results. The team contacted more than 350 “at-risk” freshmen last semester. The UI usually loses around 250 freshmen between first and second semester; 191 didn’t return this academic year.

“No one should have to leave this university unless he or she wants to,” UI Registrar Larry Lockwood said.

The UI has one of the worst freshman-retention rates in the Big Ten — 17 percent of the UI’s freshmen don’t return for a second year.

The team keeps an eye on students’ midterm grades, financial status, registration records, and discipline reports to identify students who may not make it into the next semester.

The toll taken on retention in the spring almost doubles — an average of 450 students opt not to come back for a second year at the UI. At an early intervention meeting Tuesday, the team discussed this and the goal to reduce that number to around 300.

If the group meets that goal, the UI’s freshman-retention rate would increase 5 percent, to an overall 88 percent.

Officials said finances often are a part of students’ decision not to continue their education at the UI.
Lockwood estimated that as of last November 2009, 5,100 students had a financial hold on their registration — meaning they couldn’t register for the coming semester because of monetary issues.

Finances have become an increasingly difficult issue for UI students in tough economic times, Lockwood noted.

According to a recent study by the state Board of Regents, 24 percent of students who didn’t return for their sophomore year in 2008 opted to go to a cheaper school.

“The student is under contract to pay tuition, not mom and dad,” Lockwood said. “We help them with that by making contact through e-mail and asking them to come in to talk to us.”

The team has a scale for dealing with different amounts owed for tuition, including agreeing to a contract to pay the money back or sitting down with someone from the Registrar’s Office to plan finances.

Letters from the team will soon be sent to students who have unpaid tabs with the university. The letters encourage students to settle their bills or come talk to someone who can help.

Lockwood noted the team helped keep around 60 students enrolled this semester.

“Each of those students may seem like a small success, but when you put it all together, it’s a big success for the university,” he said.

But the group’s focus isn’t limited to money problems. Diane Hauser, an associate director of academic programs & services in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, works to offer students academic support.

“We’re planning on having a class that would help freshmen explore a range of majors at the university,” she said. “It will help students find the majors that best fit them or decide on a new major.”

Maureen Schafer, an academic adviser in the UI Academic Advising Center, said it’s important that improving retention has become a universitywide effort.

“When I’m working with a student and there’s a need I can’t solve, there’s a good chance I know someone who can help,” she said.

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