Should I stay or should I go? College assesses retention rates

By Juliann Guiffre and Laura Hutton, News Co-Editor

Why are you here?

For some this question is easy.

Senior Lauren Esposito says she found her place at McDaniel. Senior Kendall Bieschke formed personal relationships with her professors. The school provided senior Michelle Debuagh with many internship and career opportunities.
Yet for others, a seed of doubt is planted soon after arrival- a seed that may lead to stress, conflict, and eventually transfer.

A retention study done by McDaniel’s Institutional Research reveals that of the students who entered the school in 2001, only 66.3% completed all four years and graduated in 2005.

Percentages in earlier years were in the lower 70s. The percentage of freshman that returned for sophomore year during those years, according to the study, has consistently been in the lower eighties.

These findings, noted Dean of Admissions Florence Hines, are average for a small liberal arts school.

The top three influences linked to retention, Hines explained, include finding a connection with a person on campus, finding a place outside the classroom where they can make a contribution, and outlining a clear academic strategy.

“Students need to feel that someone cares about them and that they are making progress toward some kind of career goal,” Hines said.

Henry B. Reiff, Dean of Student Academic Life is one of the people who signs off on students who are transferring from McDaniel College. He is in charge of conducting an exit interview to learn why the student is leaving and check if they really want to.

Reiff said he does not try to convince unwilling students to stay. However, if a student is only transferring based on a rectifiable problem, like monetary issues, he works with them.

Reiff feels that the main reason that students transfer is because they are not engaged or connected to the campus.

“Some students will say it’s the food; you don’t leave a college for food. It is a deeper issue, a lack of connection, Reiff explained, the year that you lose the most students is the first year. If they are not connecting early, it is unlikely for them to ever connect.”

Junior, Ken Buerger attended McDaniel College for two years before transferring to William and Mary. Yet he was one of the few who decided that the academic standards were not strong enough.

“I was disappointed with McDaniel’s watered-down curriculum,” Buerger stated, “honestly, how are nearly all classes worth four credits?”

“There are times I regret leaving McDaniel,” Buerger added. “Without a doubt, the people are much nicer at McDaniel. Here, there is an alarming number of arrogant, narcissistic, trust-fund wielding babies who don’t look before crossing the street.”

After college, Buerger plans to go to law school; he contends that McDaniel was not the right choice to lead him there. In the end, he made the right choice for himself.

“I wanted a school that pushed students beyond their comfort level,” Buerger added, “so academically, I’m much happier, even though I’m not sleeping as much.”

McDaniel’s approach to keeping students here begins with the very first year.

Assistant Dean of First Students Sarah Stokely, along with the rest of the first year team, has worked hard to determine ways to make the first year better. Some of the most recent installations were the first year seminar, the peer-mentoring program, and assigning a first year faculty advisor to each student.

Stokely also talks with students who are contemplating transfer.

She says that the most common reason she runs into is the “personal” reason. “And by personal I mean that many students are really homesick. I find that if one is more than around four hours away from home than they have trouble,” she said.

She cited the least frequent reason as the “academic” one, saying that students are “almost universal in praise of the faculty.”

“The college should always be concerned about retention. Retention is not a goal in and of itself. We need to make sure we are offering an educational and living experience that is consistent with our educational mission and meets the needs of students,” added Reiff.

A new program, Student Outreach Network, examines any students with cause for worry. Implemented by Dean of Student Affairs Beth Gerl last spring, Student Outreach Network is heralded by Hines as “important” because it is “proactive.”

“We’re not waiting till someone already wants to leave,” Hines said. “We are trying to intervene at the first signs of problem.”

Hines is also part of a recently formed committee to examine the extremely complex issue of retention.

“The president formed this task force because she wants our retention rates to be better than average. This is consistent with her goal of quality improvement everywhere,” she said.

Stephanie Saulsbury, who transferred from McDaniel after her freshman year, said that the decision was one of the hardest she has ever made.

Yet despite “missing the people at McDaniel and the familiarity and small class size”, she is glad to now attend the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, and likes that this school offers a lot of things McDaniel couldn’t because of its size.

One of the most important things to realize, says Hines, is that McDaniel can’t be a perfect fit for everyone. “We just have to show who we are as a school so that students can decide if we will be right for them.”