Kacie Brophy, 24, had hoped to attend Knox College from the age of 10 years old. The dream came true for the first generation student in the fall of 2011, but quickly faded away by the beginning of her second term.
At Galesburg’s local community college, Brophy had been highly involved, a supplemental student instructor for teachers and captain of the soccer team. The transition to Knox was an abrupt change.
She soon found herself behind in her studies and regularly skipping her classes to avoid feelings of humiliation.
“I felt incredibly overwhelmed and underprepared for Knox’s curriculum,” Brophy said. “I was intimidated and embarrassed to talk to anyone about what I was going through.”
Transitioning from a college full of locals who knew her name, she felt alienated by the college community and being referred to as a “townie” often made her feel isolated by her peers.
“I knew a few students, but I always felt like my own little island on campus … it was so surreal. … I felt like an outsider,” Brophy said. “No one really came to me or emailed me and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’”
Toward the end of her time at Knox, she was attending classes on and off when her counselor suggested she take an academic leave of absence.
“It was a huge decision to take that leave because when I did, I felt my collar loosen a little. … I knew it was time to go and I just never came back,” she said.
Brophy’s story embodies many of the diverse factors that administration and faculty believe ultimately affect the college’s retention rate. In response, upcoming retention initiatives will focus largely on these and other issues that may present academic obstacles for students from underrepresented backgrounds, such as first generation college students, ethnic and cultural minorities and students from low income households.
Retention typically refers to the number of students who return to a college after completing their first term. Statistically, Knox College’s overall first year retention rate is on par with other private colleges in the area, but administration and faculty say that there is always room for improvement.
The most immediate retention effort will be a summer bridge program, which will be piloted this summer and will target students from underserved backgrounds. Organized by the Admissions, Retention and Placement Committee, the program aims to prepare students without previous exposure to academia for a smooth transition into college level classes and the campus environment.
“This program will get students comfortable with what it’s like to be in a classroom,” Dean of Students Lori Schroeder said.
The college already has several resources in place to help maintain student retention.
“We have a combination of tools and software that utilize data,” Schroeder said.
According to Schroeder, administration has access to Finish Line, a preventative software program that monitors students, alerting them to predictive factors that might make a student more likely to leave. Finish Line takes into account factors like first term grades, the number of courses a student drops in the first term and their math placement scores. It also provides the college with an early alert system for faculty to contact administration when a student has missed a considerable amount of classes.
The TRIO Achievement Program has also played a key role in retention by providing eligible first generation, low-income and disabled students with academic support such as academic guidance, peer mentoring and technology resources.
“TRIO’s business is retention,” Schroeder said. However, the program relies on a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and their resources are outweighed by their demand, causing them to turn away eligible students.
Laura Bush, academic counselor for the TRIO Achievement Program, attributes a portion of the program’s success to the program’s level of contact with individual students. Each TRIO student is required to make in-person contact with the program at least twice a term, yet many students significantly overshoot this requirement.
Bush also pointed out the program’s individual tailored counseling programs for each student. “We try to serve each student that walks in the door individually,” Bush explained. “You can think of us as a one-stop safe space where students can go to negotiate the Knox campus and the Knox degree.”
Many faculty members express a need for campus to evolve to accommodate the 21st century student body in order to reflect its diverse makeup and recognize the progress being made to do so.
“I’m really proud that our faculty voted practically unanimously to have faculty members attend a diversity training workshop,” said Associate Professor and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies Magali Roy-Fequire. “These steps are not flashy or really visible, but they are taking us in the right direction.”
Professor and Chair of Africana Studies Fred Hord, who serves on the college’s Diversity Committee, pointed out that the college’s plans to implement a summer bridge program are “not new” and that Knox has attempted similar program years before.
Hord drew attention to the stereotypes and stigmas that can lower academic confidence and performance of minority students, ultimately affecting retention amongst these groups.
From his own personal experience, Hord notes that students of color have few faculty and staff members who resemble them to consult in times of need, leading them to seek guidance from a small pool of professors.
“Black teachers become unofficial advisors and that’s okay, but we’re just not equipped to help all of these students,” Hord explained.
As a part of their 2008 strategic plan, Knox College aims to boost its retention rates from 88 to 92 percent by 2018, but Chief Institutional Research Officer Charles Clark explains that the academic world places too much emphasis on retention.
“By looking at retention we’re masking what is really important,” Clark said. Instead, Clark urges us a comparison of the college’s overall graduation rates to those of other colleges.
More specifically, Clark emphasizes that the five-year graduation rate will provide a more accurate picture, as it includes those students who spend that extra year on campus student teaching.
“A lot of higher education gets hung up on that second year, but the end game is the ultimate goal,” Clark explained.