Newswise — WESTERVILLE, Ohio—Otterbein University is taking retention seriously and it’s beginning to pay off.
As many as one in three first-year students never make it back for the sophomore year, according to the U.S. News & World Report, but Otterbein, a small, comprehensive liberal arts university located 15 minutes northeast of Columbus, Ohio, is bucking the trend, recording a retention rate of 81.1 percent this fall, its best figure in ten years.
“The big news, and it’s big news in my opinion, our freshman retention rate jumped over three percent this year, said Jefferson Blackburn-Smith, Otterbein’s vice president for enrollment management. “If you look at our historical retention trends over the last five years, we’ve seen gradual increases—something we have been working towards—but we never expected a three percent jump this year.”
In fact, Otterbein’s freshmen retention target of 82 percent in the strategic enrollment plan was not expected to be hit until the freshman class of 2020 returned as sophomores in 2021.
“To get that close to hitting our 2021 target way ahead of schedule is very rewarding,” Blackburn-Smith said. “What is exciting about the big jump is that it’s driven by many of the student groups we really have invested special attention to. We saw a significant increase among our lowest income students. We saw a significant increase among African-Americans. We saw a significant increase among men. And we saw a significant increase in our students coming from Columbus City Schools.”
Among the lowest income students, the retention rate jumped from 53.5 to 72.2 percent. Among African-Americans, retention increased from 66.7 to 77.1 percent; among men, 75.7 to 80.0 percent; and among students from Columbus City Schools, from an historical average in the mid-60’s to 82.0 percent. Overall, Otterbein’s first-year retention rate increased from 78.0 to 81.1 percent this year. In addition, the persistence rate from the sophomore to the junior year increased 4.2 percent to 70.4.
Part of that increase can be attributed to the step Otterbein took in the 2013-14 academic year to rework its financial aid package in hopes that it would help attract and retain students coming from low income families and from Columbus City Schools. A study by the Council of Independent Colleges shows that low income students have more success at small, private universities like Otterbein.
“In the fall of 2013, as an example, we enrolled just eight freshmen from Columbus City Schools where we had been enrolling 20 to 30 a year,” Blackburn-Smith said. “So we reached out and heard back from counselors and others that their kids couldn’t afford to come here anymore. Once we remodeled our financial aid, we jumped to 28 students from Columbus City Schools last fall and to 34 this fall. It’s had a positive effect in attracting these students, and they are being successful and staying. The key is we don’t want to bring students here to have them leave without their degrees.”
Another key institutional change Otterbein made at the same time it restructured financial aid, was to enforce payment deadlines for students, which had grown somewhat lax due to the Great Recession.
“We reinstituted a firm deadline for students to pay their fees and we brought on TouchNet, which allows students to manage their accounts and make monthly payments over the course of the year,” Blackburn-Smith said. “We have significantly reduced the risk of a student accruing debt, not earning college credit, and leaving the university.”
Although much of Otterbein’s breakthrough year in retention can be attributed to admission policies and practices, and changes in financial aid, a good deal of credit has to go to the Center for Student Success (CSS), established in 2010 to aid the University in the conversion from the quarter system to semesters and then, in the longer term, support and centralize academic advising.
The center, headed by Kate Lehman, assistant dean for student success, has become much more than that, however, becoming one of the key components in Otterbein’s retention efforts, and receiving over 1,000 student visits each academic year.
The CSS mission statement reads in part, “to promote the persistence and graduation of our students. Our primary focus is to support academic advising on campus by enriching the faculty and student advising relationship. Through advocacy and a supportive environment, we help students find their path, and encourage their progress towards academic and personal success.”
“We connect the dots, sort of serve as a concierge for our students,” said Lehman, recipient of the Outstanding First-Year Student Advocate Award in 2012 from the National Resource Center for First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. “We are probably not the ones who will actually solve issues for our students, but we help them get to where they need to go.”
The CSS supports the general operation of Otterbein’s First Year Experience (FYE), a comprehensive program which supports all aspects of a student’s transition into the Otterbein community. The program focuses on both classroom and out of class resources and experiences to ensure the success of all new students. New students have the opportunity to house in Living Learning Communities (LLC) where students live on a specific floor of a residence hall together, participate in signature activities outside of the classroom, and partner with faculty and residence life staff to create a unique and inclusive living community. About 100 students live in one of the three theme-based LLC’s this year, which are Leadership, Health & Wellness, and Sports in Society.
The center has developed many early-warning detectors of at-risk students and put in place a mentoring system called Achieving Maximum Potential (AMP), which pairs at-risk students with volunteer members from the Otterbein faculty or staff. There are about 50 students in the program this year. The center also serves as the departmental home for all undeclared majors, another category of at-risk students.
Otterbein University is a small private university nationally-recognized for its intentional blending of liberal arts and professional studies through its renowned Integrative Studies curriculum and its commitments to experiential learning and community engagement. Otterbein is a recipient of the 2015 Carnegie Community Service Classification; a finalist for the 2014 President’s Award for Economic Opportunity Community Service; and has been honored With Distinction by the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll since the list’s inception in 2006. It stands in its category’s top 10 percent in U.S. News & World Report’s guide to “America’s Best Colleges.” Otterbein offers more than 70 undergraduate majors; six master’s programs; and a doctorate in nursing practice (DNP). Its picturesque campus is perfectly situated in Westerville, Ohio, America’s fifth friendliest town (Forbes), just minutes from Columbus, the 15th largest city in the country. Otterbein’s commitment to opportunity started with its founding in 1847 as one of the nation’s first universities to welcome women and persons of color to its community of teachers and learners, which now numbers 2,400 undergraduate and 400 graduate students. Otterbein remains committed to its relationship with the United Methodist Church and its spirit of inclusion, and welcomes people of all backgrounds to Otterbein’s Model Community. To learn more about Otterbein, visit www.otterbein.edu.