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Haslam Students Help Devise New Retention Strategy for the University

February 9, 2018

Three Haslam College of Business student interns helped the provost's office find a segment of at-risk first-time freshmen who were previously falling through the cracks. The Office of the Provost enlisted the help of undergraduate business analytics students Bryce Curtsinger and Tanner Martin, who both graduated in May, and graduate student Brady Gail.

The students reviewed three years of student success data. They found that student retention odds start to slip earlier than the university officials had previously thought: a student is at increased risk of dropping out after failing to complete even one course.

Specifically, the business analytics students confirmed a detail that Assistant Provost and Director of Institutional Research and Assessment Denise Gardner suspected from looking at preliminary numbers. Students who fail to earn class credit because they take NCs (no credit) and Ws (course withdrawal) in challenging courses are at a higher risk of leaving the university before completing their degrees.

While the results are simple, coming to them was a complicated process. Before seeing these results, pinpointing at-risk students primarily relied on GPA. That method of filtering for struggling students is flawed because Ws (four of which are allowed during a student’s time at UT) and NCs (unlimited) do not factor into the GPA. Consequently, a student could fail to earn credit for numerous courses and still appear to be doing well.

Compounding this problem, students in some of the university's gateway foundational courses — including courses in English, math and foreign languages — automatically get an NC if they don’t achieve an A, B or C. Lower grades are not given in those courses; students who get an NC and want credit for the course must retake the course until they earn a C or better.

Students who fail to get credit in one of these gateway courses could be destined for failure unless they get some academic assistance.

On a more positive note, the interns found that students who flounder during their first semester tend to persevere if they are able to rebound academically in their second semester. This finding reinforces the importance of earlier intervention.

The university has already used the results to begin intervening more quickly to get at-risk students academic assistance including:

  • Sharing the findings with the student success team and advisors so they can get to these students faster and offer some form of remediation.
  • Starting this spring, revising the system of warning students who are failing to make satisfactory academic progress. Federal, state and university regulations require that a student make satisfactory academic progress toward their degree — that is, that they maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0 and successfully complete 67 percent of their total attempted hours — to retain their financial aid. In the past, the university has checked students’ SAP at the end of each year. It will now check each semester and alert students who are in danger.
  • Continuing to study the current system of awarding NCs and Ws to see what the university might change to improve student retention.
  • Enlisting the help of two more interns this spring — Derek Shambo, a grad student in business analytics,and Karson Stone, a graduate student in industrial engineering — to help identify other segments of at-risk students and develop strategies for connecting them with resources to promote student success.