Coastal Carolina University used as a nationwide case study on student retention

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CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — Within months, Coastal Carolina University was able to raise the grade-point averages of students who were at risk of losing their scholarships by more than a full point.

Now, after seeing those immediate successes, the Conway university is being used as a positive reference nationwide. A case study of the changes recently earned the Best Practices in Student Retention Award during the 2021 National Symposium on Student Retention. 

The changes detailed in the case study came after what it called “increasingly low retention rates” for first-year students. 

About a quarter of students will be placed on academic probation at least once while they’re at a university, according to research cited in the study, although only 1% expect to even be in that situation during their first year.

In 2018, 6% of first-year CCU students were on academic probation by the beginning of the spring term. Once students were on academic probation and didn’t complete their required credit hours, they were losing their financial aid.

Student development theory states that students drop out – or “stopout,” as universities commonly refer to it – because they don’t feel connected, according to Daphne Holland, CCU’s assistant vice president for student success initiatives, and one of three authors on the case study. 

But what CCU’s retention team found was that students said they were leaving because of financial reasons. After digging deeper, the team found that it wasn’t because of the cost of tuition and housing – it was because students were losing their financial aid because of their grades. 

Holland said CCU decided to focus on students who were at risk of losing their financial aid. 

The research-based initiative combined new policies with an academic coaching department and a class aimed at teaching students the skills they need to perform well in classes. Prior to the introduction of the Student Opportunity for Academic Recovery (SOAR) in 2018, there was no university-wide, academic recovery program available at CCU.

Holland assumed it’d be similar to introducing a new coach to a football team – it wouldn’t be until those first-years were nearing graduation that CCU would get an idea of if it was causing change.

“Personally, I was giving us four years,” she said.

Instead, it was immediate.

Data from the university shows retention rates jumping from 2018 to 2019. Retention hovered between 67% and 68.4% from 2016 to 2018, and then increased to 73.4% in 2019. 

The retention efforts specifically targeted those at-risk students, who saw large gains in their classroom performance. 

In 2018, the year the SOAR academic recovery program launched, the average GPA of a student who qualified for the program was 1.13. A year later, of those who qualified, students who had a “satisfactory” performance in the program had an average of a 2.04 GPA. Those who did not participate had a 1.25. 

Of the 106 students eligible for the program in fall 2018, 79.2% regained good academic standing, according to the case study. 

Students are placed on academic probation if they drop below a cumulative 2 GPA. The first time they reach academic suspension, they are required to wait at least a semester before returning to the university. If they receive an indefinite suspension, they have to wait a full calendar year before petitioning a committee to allow them back in. 

The university updated that policy in 2018 to note that students can’t be placed on academic suspension without first spending a semester on academic probation. If the student has less than 30 credits when they’re on probation, they are assigned a coach and are required to attend four meetings with them. 

CCU created a new status, “academic advisory,” for students who are on the verge of being placed on probation. The status allows students to receive help without suffering any penalties.

A new academic coaching department also works with students who have less than 30 credits and are on probation. 

The SOAR program teaches students about the “learning required effort” involved to do well in class, along with emphasizes creating strategies, promotes motivation and provides chances for reflection. That includes teaching time management skills.

Holland said CCU was expecting to see results because a similar program hadn’t previously been offered. She said the initiatives are grounded in research and were rolled out by the right people.

She expects the program to expand to include proactive efforts for all freshmen, and there are plans to have efforts that encompass sophomore students, as well. 

The university hopes to eventually retain 70% of all first-year students. 

The push has stressed that all CCU employees need to support students.

“Our administration is doing a good job in that everyone is part of the retention effort,” said Debbie Conner, an author on the case study and the clinical assistant professor in the Spadoni College of Education and Social Services. 

Although the case study only looks at a specific population, she said retention numbers university wide have continued to increase.

“I think we’ve done a really good job,” Conner said. 

She said the case study has received positive feedback from across the nation, and that other universities are calling to ask for more information. 

The paper’s third author is Mary Fischer, a former director of CCU’s academic coaching experience department, who is now at Western Carolina University. 

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