UMass Amherst Expands, Refines Student Retention Programs To Enhance Undergraduate Success

AMHERST, Mass. - The University of Massachusetts has launched a number of initiatives in the past five years to help students stay in school, according to George W. Spiro, associate dean for undergraduate matters at the School of Management who chairs the Enrollment Management Retention Committee.

These initiatives generally called retention programs take many forms including:

* Academic counseling

* Tutoring

* Personal advice

* Career guidance

* Mentoring

* Residential/academic programs

"There are many reasons why students leave school," Spiro said. "They can be anything from financial problems, to family difficulties, to alcohol or drug abuse, or just having a bad roommate."

Therefore, Spiro said, keeping students from dropping out requires a strong effort on many fronts. "There is no single answer."

Retention programs generally focus on first- and second-year students because they are most likely to leave school, according to Spiro. Keys to retaining students who can perform academically are: early contact with faculty; easy access to advising on what the University requires; providing channels for faculty and staff to learn about what personal and family issues may be affecting a student''s academic performance; and living and learning arrangements in which students become part of a comfortable network of friends and colleagues.

Some of the newest retention efforts include:

* The Universe Through the University: An academic/residential program begun in 1996 in Patterson Hall offering small classes and personalized help for undeclared majors first-year students most at risk for leaving school.

* Learning Support Services: Opened in 1994 on the 10th floor of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, it provides tutors, mentoring, and computer laboratories for all students.

* Reorganization of academic advising in The College of Arts and Sciences: In 1996, CAS created an advising center and reorganized the way it serves its nearly 12,000 declared and undeclared majors.

* Transforming the former Career Center into the Campus Career Network, going from a traditional centralized service-center model to a model in which teams of two career specialists based in individual colleges and schools provide career and job placement assistance to students and consulting to faculty.

* Formation of the Undergraduate Advising & Academic Support Center (UAASC), which will consolidate a wide range of advising and counseling services for undergraduates.

* Joseph Marshall: Hired as assistant vice chancellor for enrollment services. He will begin his job in August 1997 and will provide leadership to Admissions, Financial Aid Services, the Campus Career Network, and various academic/support services.

* Campus Advising Conference: Held in January 1997 to discuss student academic advising a key retention component and to make student voices heard.

* Foreign Language/International House: This residential academic program in Thatcher Hall was started in 1995. It offers intensive language programs in French, German, Japanese, and Spanish, and an International Program where students from overseas live together.

* Expansion of Special Interest Residential Programs (SIRPs). Residential Life has fostered these programs which allow students to live in a community atmosphere with others who share cultural or academic interests or lifestyle preferences. Nearly 1,800 students elected to live in one of 12 SIRPs offered this past year. A new program, the Van Meter Arts Program, will begin in the fall for students interested in various forms of artistic expression.

In addition to these new ventures (most of which are described in more detail below), other programs are in place that help students in a variety of ways. For example, 17 Residential Academic Programs (RAPs) serve more than one-quarter of the first-year class. Through RAPs, students may attend a selection of courses located in their own residence halls. Also, some 13 Talent Advancement Programs (TAPs) are available in which students in certain majors live and study together, and take some classes in their residence halls.

Both RAPs and TAPs offer smaller class sizes in a familiar, supportive environment keys to helping some students make a successful transition to college life, according to Joseph J. Battista Jr., director of residential academic programs. Battista said first-year students are recruited into the TAP programs. They receive a packet of information about each and a letter from a student currently participating. "TAP is used for both recruitment and retention," Battista said.

Programs that may serve specific groups of students are also key aspects of the University''s retention efforts. These include the Bilingual Collegiate Program (BCP), the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black and Other Minority Students (CCEBMS), the United Asia Learning Resource Center (UALRC), Diversity in Management Education Services (DiMES) in the School of Management, the Minority Engineering Program, and the Stonewall Center, serving lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender students. Each offers various forms of academic help and other support, such as personal and career counseling, tutorials and specific skill work, all with the aim of helping students stay in school and make the most of their college experience.

A closer look at some of the new programs:

Started during the 1996-97 academic year in Patterson Hall in the Southwest Residential Area, The Universe Through the University was aimed at approximately 200 first-year students who had not declared majors and were recruited to participate. This fall, the program is to be expanded to 240 students.

It features early advising of students, tutoring, mentoring, two courses taught in Patterson by faculty, and other support services within the residential setting. Because undeclared students don''t have a department, they frequently lack a sense of direction and need to have a strong support network to help them decide how to structure their academic career, Carol Rogers, program coordinator said. "Our students get an immediate sense of ''Hey, I belong to something,'' and that it''s all right to be a searcher and explorer."

The residential setting also provides students with a social network, Rogers said, reducing the chance they will feel isolated. Small classes (17-20 participants) held in the residence hall, a "major-of-the-week" series of meetings with faculty and deans, and easy access to academic and residential advisors are integral parts of the program, she said. "We have some strong indications it works," Rogers said, "because we know that a large number of our students did very well in small classes, but they bombed in large lectures."

Learning Support Services (LSS) provides a full range of academic support services to all students, including free tutoring and assistance in areas such as math, the sciences, and the humanities. Mentoring is also a key component, and LSS''s learning laboratory features the latest in computer- and video-aided instructions. Opened in 1994, LSS (formerly called the Learning Resources Center) aims to improve retention and graduation rates for undergraduates utilizing a "peers helping peers," approach, mainly upper class students trained to help other students, according to Humberto Segura, director. Participation is voluntary, and has grown significantly each year, he said.

The center offers a Tutoring Program, providing both individual and group sessions and a Supplemental Instruction Program targeting large or traditionally difficult classes. It also provides regularly scheduled, out-of-class, peer-guided sessions; a Student Success program (3 credits) with diagnostic evaluation of study and basic skills from note-taking, to library research skills, health, diversity and money management; a Learning Laboratory with computer, video, and audio instruction; a Mentoring program for students in The Universe Through the University program; and Video Supplemental Instruction for a large number of classes.

Students who use the supplemental instruction program improve academic work by between a grade and a grade-and-a-half, Segura said. "This is not for remedial students. This is a center for students who are doing well, and want to do better."

Segura said students refer other students to the center. "Our students are telling their friends that there is something good here," he said. In 1994-95, 1,807 students made 4,368 visits; in 1995-96, 2,249 students made 8,567 visits; and in 1996-97, 3,000 students made about 10,000 visits. Faculty members also refer students to the center and on-campus advertising and posters make students aware of its offerings.

In 1996, the College of Arts and Sciences restructured its advising functions, creating an Arts and Sciences Advising Center for majors in the colleges of Humanities and Fine Arts, Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Social and Behavioral Sciences. This year, it served 7,100 undergraduates.

Also new is the University Advising Center (UAC) for undergraduates who have not declared a major or are pre-majors. This unit served 4,700 undergraduates in 1996-97.

"We''ve made the changes to provide students with a place to receive advising on University requirements and to handle any problems they may be having," said Harlan G. Sturm, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts.

In a related development, the University is forming the Undergraduate Advising & Academic Support Center (UAASC), which will combine the Pre-Major Advising Services, (formerly UAC), Learning Disability Support Services (LDSS), Psychological Counseling, Assessment, and Testing Services (PCATS), Learning Support Services (LSS), and theEnglish-as-a-Second-Language and the Bachelor''s Degree with Individual Concentration programs. A search is currently underway for an associate dean of UAASC who will serve as director.

Also, as part of the effort to improve students'' experience at the University, and thus increase retention, a Campus Advising Conference was held in January 1997.

The conference was convened to improve advising to undergraduates, a key to keeping students at the University. "Last year we began talking about advising and came up with a four-part definition," said J. Gary Bernhard, director of University Without Walls. The four parts are: academic, personal, career, and resource advice, Bernhard said. Although academic advising is offered in a variety of programs across campus, not all meet all those goals. At the conference, a panel of students offered their views to staff, faculty, and administrators.

The Foreign Language/International House in Thatcher Hall opened in 1995. It provides up to 130 students with the opportunity to live, study, and socialize together, which, in turn, helps students build academic and personal support networks, said Therese Pasquale, associate director of Residential Academic Programs.

In addition to the language-specific floors (French, German, Japanese, and Spanish), which host their own classroom/lounge area and emphasize both languages and cultures, half of the residence hall houses international students. "A high percentage of our students are honors students," Pasquale said, "and about 10 percent are first-year students." Pasquale said many in the program take double majors, adding a second-language proficiency to their professional training.

Overall, Sturm and Spiro say the University remains committed to expanding and refining retention efforts. Work continues on these new programs and review of initial results is underway. While it is too early to tabulate how these new initiatives have affected rates of retention, some trends appear clear: more students are using programs such as Learning Support Services each year and there is continued strong demand for participation in RAPs and TAPs. "A broad range of issues are involved in retention and we''re working on many of them at the same time," Spiro said.