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Faculty, Your Secret Weapon for Student Retention

By AACC Staff

How one college is using teamwork on campus to move the needle on student retention and completion.

As pressure mounts to improve college completion rates, community colleges are increasingly on the lookout for solutions to an age-old problem: how to keep students from dropping out once they enroll.

North Carolina Southwest Community College, located at the western tip of the Tar Heel state, is keeping students engaged through a program that relies on the input of its most trusted resource: faculty.

Called Retention Action Committees, or RATs, the organized groups, which began as a cost-cutting measure, were the brainchild of Thom Brooks, vice president of instruction and student learning for the college.

Knowing the college didn’t have the budget to outsource retention efforts, Brooks turned instead to passionate faculty who recognized there was a problem and could identify ways to keep students engaged.

“We really had to roll up our sleeves and start eating the elephant one bite at a time,” Brooks says.

We really had to roll up our sleeves and start eating the elephant one bite at a time.

Rather than rely on the input of larger leadership committees, Brooks decided to break the team out into smaller, more agile taskforces. These taskforces were charged with meeting specific goals, part of a multi-faceted strategy designed to tackle nearly every aspect of student retention.

Among the first tangible changes initiated by the RATs was reviving an older idea — a student success course, which the college decided to make mandatory for first-year students. The program was designed to orient students beyond the standard tour of the campus and its facilities. Rather, Brooks says, it lays a foundation for good studying habits and academic planning.

Once orientation is complete, the focus shifts to keep students engaged and on a clear path to success.

A new retention alert process notifies faculty when academic and behavioral concerns arise. Now, faculty can intervene and provide support before students drop out.

In it together

It wasn’t long before word began to spread that the college was committed to making changes.

“Folks quickly recognized that we were serious about it,” Brooks says. Faculty saw that they had a say and that their input could help change the culture of the institution.

Soon other faculty joined the movement. The college now has 13 different RATs. Demand was so high that Brooks was forced to place an eight-person cap on each team.

Other teams include faculty dedicated to:

  • College readiness
  • Admissions communication
  • Test preparation
  • Graduation completion
  • Data analysis
  • Curriculum mapping
  • Student focus groups
  • Student recognition

The enthusiasm generated by the work of the teams led to a cultural shift that spread to every corner of the institution, says Brooks. Everyone was in it together.

“Improving retention and completion is a responsibility that belongs to all of us,” he says. “It’s not just something that resides in student services. Wherever you are in the institution, this is part of your responsibility — to help students complete their work.”

Getting started

For colleges considering how to improve student retention on campus, Brooks says it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scope of the problem. The key is to identify faculty members who feel passionately about creating change and to progress one step at a time.

“There’s not a single, silver-bullet solution to student retention and success,” Brooks says. “It takes a number of efforts to address the problem. Even a small beginning, tackling a single effort, will build momentum on campus to develop other efforts.”

How does your college leverage faculty participation and commitment to improve student success with efforts that extend beyond the classroom? Tell us in the Comments.

AACC Staff

contributed to this report.

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