Colleges Get Failing Grades on Student Retention

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When Amanda Wieder enrolled at the University of Florida in summer 2009, she worried not only about the transition to college life but also about how she'd pay for her education. Her mother, a single parent, supported both Amanda and her twin sister.

Her cause for worry was not unjustified. As a first-generation college student, statistics say Amanda is less likely to graduate than her peers.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, while 49% of students whose parents are college graduates will themselves graduate within six years, that number drops to 15% for first-generation students.

And they're not the only group at risk.

A new report says that over the previous five years, taxpayers have spent $9 billion on students who will drop out before their sophomore year.

Faced with these numbers, universities are stepping in to keep students enrolled and on the path to graduation.

The summer she entered UF, Wieder received a letter asking her to join UF's Florida Opportunity Scholars program.

The program, with 1,400 students, gives select first-generation, low-income UF students scholarships for tuition and a support system.

"They follow you through your four years here and just generally make sure you're doing well," Wieder said. "It's really an amazing program."

Its administrators may well feel the same about the scholars.

"The students are very motivated to succeed," director Leslie Pendleton told ABC News. "So we are happy to offer them any resources we can to help make that happen." Those resources include seminars on financial budgeting and career planning, and pairing with a peer mentor to "help them get oriented to the campus."

Students in the program have a 96 percent freshmen retention rate (UF's overall is 95 percent), and graduation rates are similar to those of UF as a whole.

"Research would tell you that the kids in this program wouldn't graduate as frequently as other students," she said. "But we've proven that if you give a student who wants to succeed the means to do it, they can be very successful, no matter their background."

"A Serious Problem on Our Hands"

In the past five years, taxpayers have spent $9 billion on college students who drop out before their sophomore year, according to the American Institutes of Research, a not-for-profit behavioral and social science research organization.

"These are huge, huge numbers," said Mark Schneider, author of the report. "We have a serious problem on our hands."

Collegemeasures.org., launched with help from the institute, is a compilation of statistics about graduation rates, retention rates and student loan default rates. Users can compare data between states or look at a specific school.

Vermont, for instance, has the highest graduation rates in the nation at 71.6 percent, Idaho the lowest at 32.7 percent.

Stanford, in California, has a 98 percent first-year retention rate and ranks in the 99th percentile for cost per bachelor's degree at $305,707.

"The purpose of this website is to alert people - lawmakers, taxpayers, students - about what's going on in our universities," Schneider said.

But he adds, "[America's] playbook on how to fix this issue is pretty empty."

"Life Got in the Way"

"Sure, there's a huge cost to taxpayers and an even bigger one to the student," said Dewayne Matthews, vice president of policy and strategy for the Lumina Foundation for Education. "But dropping out has a societal cost as well."

If more citizens held college degrees, he said, unemployment would decrease and America's human capital would rise.

Most students who drop out do so, added Matthews, because "life got in the way" -- health problems, family emergencies, economic problems.

"These are not unmotivated people," he said. "These are people that took the time to apply to college, had the skill to get accepted but then these unavoidable hardships happened."

Matthews encourages each college to analyze their students to find what kind of support would best fit.

"If a school admits a student, it has taken on responsibility for that student."

"This isn't a one-size-fits-all issue. You've got to zero in on your students' specific problems."

"Early Warning" Systems

Xavier University, a private school in Cincinnati, has set up an "early warning" program, where professors identify students who are performing poorly. It's part of the school's 20-year-old Office of Student Success and Retention. The student is then invited into the offices to talk.

"If you don't know if there's a problem, you can't intervene," said Adrian Schiess, Xavier's executive director for student academic support services.

In addition, surveys about how first-year students are adjusting to college life are sent to students and parents to help advisers understand why at-risk students are struggling.

He acknowledged that Xavier's size -- small, with about 4,000 undergraduates -- allows for such individual attention.

Creating "A Culture of Success"

"We try to create a culture of success," Larry Abele, Florida State University's provost told ABC News. "If students feel like they belong and like they can succeed, then they are less likely to give up."

Helping students feel connected to the 40,000-student school is key, he added, so mentorship programs pair seniors with at-risk freshmen.

FSU's Living Learning Communities allow students with similar interests – music, social justice, nursing, for instance -- to live together in one residential hall. Minority-based honor societies allow underclassmen to network.

Abele believes the support has paid off, citing FSU's increased first-year retention rate, 83 percent to 92 percent, over the past ten years.

Last year Appalachian State University, a public school in North Carolina with 17,000 students, initiated First Year Seminar for incoming freshmen and transfer students.

About 20 students meet to analyze a specific topic from a variety of viewpoints. There's Harry Potter as a literary work and cultural phenomena, and the science, geography and history of volcanic activity.

According to Joseph Gonzalez, faculty coordinator for First Year Seminar, the program is designed to keep students academically stimulated, by allowing them to deeply focus on one specific topic.

With small classes, students can get to know all of their classmates and form a relationship with their professor.

No Single Cure

If a student is having a problem, we want them to know that they can talk to their professors," he said. "It's when students don't ask for help that they get into trouble."

Gonzalez said the program is one way to improve retention rates, but other departments, such as financial aid, residence life and student counseling, need to work together to truly tackle the issue.

"Dropping out is a big problem and there's not just one cure for it," he said. "We're trying to do something that is very hard, but if everyone participates in the conversation, I think we can make some progress."

Increasing Independence

Back at the University of Florida, Wieder is working through her sophomore year. She hopes to become a pediatric physical therapist one day.

She says the Florida Opportunity Scholars Program has given her the support she needs to succeed.

"Since I'm a sophomore now, the program is a lot less hand-holdy," Wieder said. "They give you the foundation freshman year and let you become more independent as you go along."

Wieder believes that support is the key to ensure student success on campus.

"Sometimes, students just need to know that someone cares," she said. "Something that small can keep someone going."

ABCNews.com contributor Meg Wagner is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Gainesville, Fla.