Originally appeared in The Herald on Sept. 5, 2018
By Chase Gage
JONESBORO – If the numbers hold, Arkansas State University will set a record for first-year retention from fall 2017 to fall 2018. The previous mark of 76 percent was set in the fall of 2014.
The record will not be official until the eleventh day of classes (Sept. 4), but Chancellor Kelly Damphousse is more focused on the impact of retention than the number itself.
“It’s a huge deal to me. It was one of my top-two priorities this past year, the first being to recruit more students to come here. My goal is to get students to come here, help them retain and persist, and then graduate. That’s what I’m all about. Those goals are what drove me last year,” Damphousse said. “I’m really excited about the success we have had compared to last year.”
The first-year retention rate sat at a less-than-ideal 72.8 percent a year ago, but thanks to hard work by the faculty and students themselves, that number is rising.
“We lost about 27.2 percent of the freshmen class from 2016. I see a student who leaves here as a crushed dream. What did I do or not do to make that happen? How can I make sure students have a good experience here?” Damphousse said. “We worked really hard to make sure students in the fall registered for classes in the spring. We had a record number of 92 percent persisting over to the Spring semester. We will have a record this year for fall-to-fall retention, which will ultimately lead to a record graduation rate.”
Mason Covey, a sophomore strategic communications major from Brookland, weighed in on why he decided to come back to A-State for another year.
“I definitely wanted to come back. I’m very interested in my major, and I’m excited to learn more in that field,” Covey said. “Of course, the price of college is always worrying me. It’s a lot of money.”
Damphousse and his department have been actively working toward making that aspect of college life easier for students as well.
“We have more scholarships available for students than we ever have before because of our fundraising efforts. We raised $40 million last year through fundraisers and private donors. The previous record amount was $18 million. Not all that money is for scholarships, but we want to help students who are facing financial stress which sometimes leads to students dropping out,” Damphousse said.
Of course, one person cannot make such a drastic change in a university by himself seemingly overnight. Damphousse noted that it was overwhelmingly a team effort, not just the result of one person.
“We started the Chancellor’s Commission on Completion which was an effort to bring together everyone who was doing retention work, learn about each other, see if there are policies in place that are or aren’t working, capitalize on those that work, try to negate those that don’t work and focus on the fall 2017 class to make sure they’re retained,” Damphousse said.
Outside of the policies and formal acts toward retention, personal connections between students and faculty played a large role, as well as student-to-student interaction.
“As much as I would like to take credit for the change in retention, all I did was provide focus and leadership. Where all the work happened was among the faculty. I saw a lot of activity by our faculty to interact more with our students and saw staff members from across campus trying to think of ways to help with retention. Our Student Life team worked hard to create more interactions among students, so they feel like they fit here. Last year we developed an app where students can communicate with each other and learn about things that are going on through the app. I watch it a lot. I hope it makes freshmen feel less isolated and less alone.”
According to Covey, the faculty at A-State are playing a role in helping first-year students progress both towards their degree, but also towards inclusion.
“I’m a theatre minor, and the people in that department are very inclusive and make me feel welcome. My advisor also helps a lot because she guides me in the right direction for my major and helps with a lot of the confusion that comes along with it,” Covey said.
Why go through all the trouble for students? Damphousse puts it in the simplest of terms.
“Every Red Wolf Counts.”