USF first-year retention rates lead to national recognition


USF’s approach to improving its first-year retention rates has resulted in national recognition after the rate went from 88.2 to 89.7 percent in the past year.

The university received the Eduventures 2016 Innovation Award from the National Research Center for College & University Admissions (NRCCUA). The NRCCUA provides data for colleges and universities so the institutions can seek out high school students who meet their preferred profiles for admission, according to the organization’s website.

USF received the Innovation Award in the category of “Defining and Reporting Outcomes,” for its work in identifying at-risk first-year students and working to keep them at the university. This identification and targeting of at-risk students is done through USF’s Persistence Committee, which was set up in February and has since been working to improve the first-year retention rates.

“(The award is) recognition that USF is doing some unique work in the area of predictive analytics and persistence because we were recognized for the way in which our Persistence Committee has been using data to identify students who are at-risk of not persisting into the next semester,” Paul Dosal, Vice Provost of Student Success, said.

The committee is composed of 15 to 20 people from various cross-campus offices and support units according to Dosal, and was formed to help coordinate efforts to boost USF retention rates. The retention rate is one of Florida’s performance metrics, which allows the university to get more in state funding.

It is also one of 12 metrics for the university to gain pre-eminent status, a goal the university has been working toward for some time. The university currently meets nine of the 11 required metrics for pre-eminence, a status that comes with more state funding and greater access to resources. The other metric USF needs for qualification is its six-year graduation rate (67 percent), which needs to be at 70 percent to meet the pre-eminence benchmark.

“On that metric, we’ve been on what we have called a performance plateau,” Dosal said. “That is, we raised our performance to about 88-89 percent, falling just short of the 90 percent required for pre-eminence.”

The university uses a platform developed by Civitas that uses predictive analytics, which generates a list of which students are at-risk for not continuing on, according to the analytics. That list is then provided to the committee members, who attempt to help the students.

They figure out who is at-risk, to what degree and for what reason. Then, the appropriate office is notified to reach out to the student. That reaching out may come from an academic advisor, financial aid counselor, resident assistant, or career counselor.

“In essence, we’re developing a case-management approach to support our students,” Dosal said.

The committee has been in operation now for about nine months. The retention rate has increased from 88.2 to 89.97, according to Dosal. That is just 0.03 short of the 90 percent needed for preeminence.

“The good news is that it seems to be working,” Dosal said.

Dosal said he is confident that when the official figure comes in, USF will have reached 90 percent.

Dosal said the challenges that come with trying to keep up a retention rate are plentiful. There are students who face financial troubles, who cannot pay their bills, or may be struggling to do so. Some students are not in the right major for them, who may not have the drive to stay in their chosen major. Some students come in with a shining academic record but are struggling in their first semester. Even more still may be pursuing a major that isn’t the major they need for their career path.

“It’s all about identifying the students in real time and providing them the services they need in a timely way,” Dosal said.

Dosal said what USF has accomplished on its first-year retention rate is a sign of what is to come.

“We are becoming, if we’re not already, a pre-eminent university and it’s this innovative, entrepreneur approach that has allowed us to achieve this much so quickly,” Dosal said. “All of us, students, faculty, staff, should be very proud of what we’ve done here.”