Should I stay or should I go?

Liberal arts colleges are dealing with decreased enrollment across the country as high schools see smaller graduate pools. Newspapers everywhere are reporting on the shrinking pool of applicants for college and both enrollment and student retention are being reviewed for changes on Concordia’s campus.

According to a report from the New York Times, “College enrollment fell two percent in 2012-13, the first significant decline since the 1990s.” It looks like this will be the trend for the next couple years due to multiple factors. The economy plays a big roll for students and parents worried about tuition costs and adults who went back to school when the job market was down are now going back to work. Additionally, the college-age population is decreasing as families are growing smaller in the United States.

To handle these issues within its own doors, Concordia has created committees to discuss the college’s optimal size, recruitment and retention ideas in the past year. Dean of admissions, Scott Ellingson says incoming numbers have been up and down in recent years, but the demographics have changed along with the time period students are enrolling.

“More people are waiting longer to make decisions,” Ellingson said. “At the same time, they have their choices narrowed down early on.”

Ellingson says he and the admissions team have had to reach out to students earlier than usual and also be open to later than usual applications. This has been tough on prediction numbers for incoming classes when students are still just considering applying in the middle of April.

“We’re dealing with 17- and 18-year-olds making decisions that affect the college,” Ellingson said.

Although enrollment numbers stay fairly consistent with a slight ebb and flow in students, the number that is harder to nail down is retention. During the Fall 2012 semester, Concordia retained only 80 percent of its freshman students from the previous year. This number was down from other classes and not near the 90 percent retention goal set forth by the college.

In the fall of 2013, the retention rate for freshman students was up around 84.5 percent, but administrators are unsure what that number will look like for next year. Administrators all have their own ideas for how to handle both recruitment and retention and nothing has been thrown out yet.

Concordia’s director of recruitment, Samantha Axvig says many of these issues with recruitment and retention are linked.

“We talk about recruiting to retain in the admissions office,” Axvig said.

She has been involved in many of the college’s discussions with regards to the changes it will make in the coming years to adapt to the new demographic of high school graduates.

“We are looking at what we do now and what we need to do to set us apart,” Axvig said.

A proposal to set the college apart was made this year to change the academic calendar to a 1-3-3-1 schedule. Essentially, students would start the year with one month of one intensive learning class followed by three months of classes, a break, three more months of classes and a final one month intensive study. Current students did not look favorably on this proposal according to a poll done by the student government association.

Although the proposal was shot down, Axvig says this has opened up more discussions for positive changes Concordia can make.

“It’s not necessarily a change in the calendar that needs to be made but what brings an enhancement to the student experience,” Axvig said.

She is currently looking at the trends and graduation rates to see who she and the recruitment team have access to and in what new areas they might find students who fit in at Concordia.

“The number of students traditional to Concordia is declining,” Axvig said.

More ethnic students attending college now, but Concordia has not seen a big increase from its “traditional student” yet.

When asked to describe Concordia’s traditional student, Axvig could quickly spout off the qualities of a Cobber: “Minnesotan. Mostly regional. Average ACT 25. GPA of 3.5. Middle income families. Strong, involved students.”

Concordia currently has a seven percent population of underrepresented student ethnicity-wise and this is an area where they are looking to expand. The other pool of students Axvig feels the college has not tapped into enough yet is those coming from two-year institutions and community colleges.

“Two-year institutions are growing rapidly,” Axvig said. “We can expand our transfer student population by creating pathways and working with community and technical colleges to transition to Concordia.”

The admissions office just hired a new transfer coordinator, Sara A. Morberg, who will be looking at building relationships with community and technical colleges in the region to create clear pathways for students to transition easily.

According to Axvig, “credits transfer well” at Concordia and working with these community and technical colleges will “open doors to have even more credits transfer in.”

“We need to become a destination for those who wouldn’t traditionally look at Concordia,” Axvig said.

She is concerned about Concordia’s current views toward non-traditional students and although she insists the college is trying, she says the “campus as a whole needs to be more open to these new pathways.” She cited “new Americans” as another resource of students the campus should be open to accepting.

Fargo has an increasing population of refugees from around the world coming with different views of education and religion.

With the policy of recruiting to retain, the college is not looking to just find any student who is willing to attend Concordia, but those who will thrive.

“We need to be more cognizant of the needs of all the students within our population,” Axvig said. “The work we do impacts everything that happens for the college.”

Concordia has been working to support and be aware of these differences through new student groups like Better Together, the interfaith student organization on campus.

Through all their work to make Concordia an open place, there are times when the college just is not the right fit. Often times a transfer or non-enrollment comes when a student decided they cannot afford the tuition or sometimes it does not fit right for whatever reason.

The story of how Jill Whipple came to Concordia seems straightforward at first glance. However, understanding her expectations for Concordia, and what actually happened when she came to college reveal why she has struggled with leaving.

A high school counselor encouraged Whipple to check out Concordia. She liked the campus and applied after her visit. She was between Concordia and the University of Minnesota before choosing Concordia in order gain new experiences. She was intrigued by the idea of so many different types of people in one small space. She expected to be friends with, or at least acquaintances with, basketball players, theater majors and student government leaders alike.

Instead, Whipple, now a sophomore nursing major, noticed the college seemed to form cliques much like those existing in high school and her fears of demanding classes and stress came true.

By winter break of her freshman year, Whipple had started to look into transferring.

Around the same time, Jessica Fortney started attending St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., a small catholic liberal arts school. She chose international studies and political science as her majors, but by the end of the first semester, she wanted to change to an anthropology major.

“Political science was too much drama for me,” Forney said.

Fortney joined the program, technically a sociology major with a concentration in anthropology, and took her first anthropology class at the beginning of her sophomore year. By the end of the semester, the school decided to get rid of the program altogether stating, “they didn’t think the major was that popular.”

Fortney felt as though she was almost forced to transfer from a place she loved dearly and started to look at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

The stories of students struggling with wanting to transfer schools are not uncommon in most places. However, they can all be used to understand what colleges can do to improve their retention rates.

Concordia has a goal to retain 90 percent of its first-year students between freshman and sophomore year. Although the numbers for this year’s freshman class will not be determined until ten days into the next fall semester, last year’s numbers are in.

According to Mike Reese, Director of Student Success and Services, retention from freshman to sophomore year last year was around 85 percent. His program is part of the enrollment division and he works closely with their office to examine enrollment numbers at Concordia as well as provide retention related services to students at the college.

“All colleges are challenged with student retention,” Reese said. “There aren’t a lot of colleges in the country who don’t have a problem right now.”

Under past president Pamela Jolicouer, the college set a goal to have retention around 85 percent between freshman and sophomore year, the time when the most students are likely to transfer or leave school entirely.

When current president William Craft came, he set the bar even higher stating the college should have a goal to retain 90 percent of the freshman class.

According to Reese, retention and graduation goals are among the most highly discussed topics for a college struggling with numbers.

“Beyond four years it becomes increasingly difficult to come back with numbers,” Reese said.

He says all schools approach retention in different ways and Concordia has created some new programs while also taking ideas from successful programs elsewhere.

His office focuses on retention and student success because he says the two “directly link.” Scholar George Kuh from Kent State University said “satisfied students stay at the college they choose” and “satisfied students are those who integrate academics with social experiences.”

Reese explains it this way: “If all you did was focus on classes and didn’t make social connections or you just had a social life and no academic drive, it can cause some disastrous ends and is not as rewarding.”

He wanted to create an office where students could feel comfortable dropping by. The Office of Student Success and Retention provides services like the peer mentoring program. The peer mentoring program is offered to every freshman student but is not mandatory. Upperclassmen who are dedicated students and committed to the college check in with their assigned mentees throughout the year.

Some of these mentors may have gone through their own struggle as freshman and they come from varying backgrounds. They are trained by the Reading and Learning Association to introduce resources to freshman and be there for support.

Reese says since the inception of the peer mentoring program, the college has seen an increase in retention.

“On top of that, students who were mentored are now becoming peer mentors and we are seeing those students who struggled before step forward to help other students,” Reese said.

Although the office keeps an open door policy, not every student feels comfortable coming in to talk with Reese. He says he often has to assure them he is not there to judge or convince them to stay if they were considering transferring.

“You can see their immediate sign of relief,” Reese said.

After feeling like she failed to meet her professors “extremely high expectations” first semester, Whipple looked at transferring to Winona State or Bemidji State over Christmas break.

“I was at a low point over break,” Whipple said. “Looking at the upperclassmen, they seemed so excited to be at Concordia. I felt looking at myself like I wanted that, but I just didn’t fit in here.”

She says she was jealous of the people who lived Concordia as she struggled to find her place. It was a hard adjustment.

She not only researched other schools, but even got to the point where she called Bemidji State to find out the process for transferring. It would take a lot of steps, but Whipple saw positive factors to move there. She had good friends from high school there and they had a good nursing program. But she did not jump quickly into changing schools.

Meanwhile, Forney was gung ho about finding a new school with an anthropology program after an unsuccessful attempt to get St. Norbert to reconsider their change.

She had joined many clubs on campus and enjoyed the liberal arts philosophy. The school even offers a “create your own major” option for students and she thought they would allow her to make anthropology work so she could stay. They did not want to cooperate.

“I was frustrated because transferring schools is a pain in the butt,” Fortney said.

Transferring schools is a common occurrence and happens at liberal arts schools everywhere. By the time some students reach out to someone like Reese, they have already made up their mind.

Their reasons for transferring are widespread and some issues can be worked out, but others are inevitable. Reese sees this as a common struggle for students who may have parents who work at the college or family members who are alumni of Concordia. They come to school thinking it is the best decision financially, but find it is not the right fit academically or socially. For those who are set on leaving the college, Reese tries to provide positive closure.

Although this is promising for students who visit the Office of Student Success and Retention, some students will not make it through the office door. Whipple is one of those students.

“I didn’t tell many Concordia people I was considering transferring,” Whipple said.

The few acquaintances Whipple did tell were supportive of whatever decision she made and they were interested in finding out why. Whipple says the wanted to help her figure out a solution. By the end of freshman year, Whipple found out she was accepted into the nursing program and had established friends through the various clubs she joined.

Once she made it into the nursing program, Whipple decided she would probably stay.

“I was doubting myself before,” Whipple said. “But now I know I can handle it.”

As a sophomore, she is involved in the Campus Service Commission as the assistant commissioner and is active in the Student Nursing Association.

“One of the things keeping me here is the opportunities I’ve had,” Whipple said.

She enjoys the leadership opportunities she is given at such a young age and hopes to continue working with these organizations in the future.

For Fortney, it was time to leave St. Norbert. The school did not fit her goals anymore and she was ready to move on. She applied and was accepted to the University of Minnesota Duluth for the anthropology program and transferred at the beginning of her second semester of sophomore year.

The most shocking part of the whole experience for Fortney was the lack of assistance from St. Norbert’s administration.

“When I had questions about my financial aid, they were very difficult to work with,” Fortney said.

She says she still loves St. Norbert and appreciated how much the professors cared about her education there. But, it was not enough to keep her there and she was fed up with the administration.

Before leaving, she had to go through an exit survey with the college. During this exit interview, Fortney was surprised to hear something from the administration she had not yet heard.

“That was the first time they asked if there was anything they could do,” she said.

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