When Director for the Center of Teaching and Learning John Haslem arrived at Knox in 1996, he was tasked with pioneering an education development program. The program, which would go on to become TRIO, was the school’s sole academic support service. Haslem knew these resources were necessary — not only because students would stop by and ask for tutoring but also from his experience as a freshman.
“What I did is what a lot of [freshmen] do, and that is to doubt yourself,” he said. In 1980, academic support meant reaching out to professors on an individual basis.
Since then, Haslem has seen that nascent field of academic development grow, a process in full sway at Knox. These resources, among other forms of academic support, will play a foundational role in Knox’s retention initiative, part of the 2018 Strategic Plan.
“Development of academic support services is going to continue,” said Haslem. “It’s going to become increasingly professional and increasingly necessary — not just for Knox but for all schools.”
The Office of Student Development is still in the process of forming a committee to craft a comprehensive retention plan in the coming year, according to Associate Dean of the College Lori Schroeder. But conversation and efforts to improve Knox’s first year retention rate, which sank by five percent in the past year, are already under way.
“There’s been a big concern, not only from the administration but from the faculty, about why we’re losing students,” said Schroeder.
Schroeder, along with the rest of the OSD, began to revisit retention last year, when Dean Laura Behling proposed Knox’s first summer bridge program for this fall’s incoming class. The program was made possible in part by an $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to enhance underrepresented students’ academic success.
The funds, which cover a four-year period at Knox, are being put toward expanding the bridge program, Student Preparation and Readiness for Knox (SPARK). The grant is also helping to expand academic support services by hiring another full-time employee for the CTL and growing its student success mentor program, which met with roughly 160 First Year Preceptorial students this fall.
“The aim is really inclusive retention efforts,” said Schroeder, highlighting the need for a comprehensive plan and a fresh look at the first-year experience.
The Admission, Retention and Placement Committee will explore other avenues for expanded support, including facilitating faculty conversation on what can be done to make 100-level courses more inclusive and accessible, said Schroeder.
Her office is also tracking the progress of SPARK participants to measure the program’s impact and look for ways to improve based on student feedback.
SPARK, which accepted 32 students, 24 of whom were first-generation, incorporated math, writing and history as well as leadership skills to help students adjust to campus two weeks before the start of orientation.
“We were looking at trying to help these SPARK students assimilate to college outside of the classroom,” said Associate Dean of Students Craig Southern, who helped direct the program. “We have a lot of improvements we could make, but it was a nice beginning.”
Freshman Ali Sweet felt the program helped her settle in at Knox and learn how to manage time in a college environment.
“I’m not good with change and separation, so for me [the challenge] was just the fear of moving away and trying to meet new people,” Sweet said. “SPARK made that a lot easier because there was only 32 of us.”
The goal is to make Knox a student-ready campus, across all departments and resources.
With changing demographics, the CTL saw its busiest year, serving over 800 students. The number of TRIO-eligible students has risen dramatically, too, according to Haslem.
“There are two different ways of looking at it,” he said. “That the students aren’t ready or we’re not ready. And I think we’ve got to look at it as an institution and say, ‘What can we do better, what can we do differently?”