Knox has an unexpected retention problem.
From fall 2018 to fall 2019, Knox had a retention rate of around 81% for students going from freshman to sophomore year, about even with the year before. However, these dips follow half a decade with rates mostly in the high 80%’s.
Which students leave has also changed. After having disproportionate numbers of Latinx and black students leaving for much of the past decade, fall 2019 saw a disproportionate number of white and male-identifying students not return to Knox, Vice President for Student Development Anne Ehrlich told Student Senate during a meeting on Thursday, Jan. 9.
Knox is still above national averages in retention, but a second year of lower retention — combined with lower enrollment overall — put a renewed emphasis on how to improve retention rates.
Most students who leave do an exit interview with Associate Dean of the College Tim Foster where they explain their reasons for leaving. The data from these interviews is then cross-checked with demographic data, Ehrlich told TKS.
Reasons for leaving
The reasons for leaving have also changed over the past five years. Financial difficulties have always been a significant reason with around 20% of students citing it as their main reason. From fall 2018 to fall 2019, 22% of freshmen who left did so for financial reasons.
Mental health represented another common reason, covering 11% of freshmen who left.
One third of students who left still planned to come back and just took a leave of absence. Everyone who left for mental health reasons planned to return, as did half of the students who left due to financial difficulties.
The most common reason for leaving was academic unpreparedness, with 27% of freshmen who left. Of those, one third were put on mandatory leave, the others were self-reported.
“That’s a new phenomenon that we hadn’t seen in quite that way before two years ago, when we first saw the drop,” Ehrlich told TKS.
Ehrlich pointed out that those who self-reported academic unpreparedness came in with comparable to their peers’ high school GPAs and test scores and were on average not doing worse in classes.
“There’s no connection to their actual academic level of preparedness,” she said. “The incoming class’ academic profile is going up, and yet they feel like they’re less academically prepared. So, I think it’s something related to a confidence issue.”
Reasons such as not fitting in socially, generally feeling Knox was too small, wanting to be closer to home, Knox not offering the major they wanted, athletics issues, personal or family problems and substance abuse made up the rest of the reasons people left.
Non-freshmen also leave for generally the same reasons, Ehrlich told Senate. They tend to take a leave of absence rather than withdraw. Less athletes and more first generation students leave later in their time at Knox and some students, generally in the sciences, leave because they find their classes too easy.
There have also been notable demographic changes over the past six years.
Latinx and black students now make up a smaller portion of students who leave than they do at Knox overall, which is the opposite from six years ago, Ehrlich told Senate.
Now, white students and male-identifying students leave at a disproportionate rate. The only correlation with reasons the administration found was with men leaving more for mental health reasons.
“That’s not a surprise because male-identifying students are less likely to (…) be willing to go to counseling (…) I think it’s a stigma issue,” Ehrlich said.
The loss of male students also presents a new concern with the gender balance of the school. Knox already, like most colleges, has more women than men, so losing a disproportionate number of men would change the current balance, Ehrlich said.
Several other groups also had disproportionately higher attrition. Student athletes, who nationally have better retention rates, made up 38% of students who left, compared to 35% of the student body.
First-generation students were also slightly more likely to leave. However, participating in programs such as TRIO and SPARK Ñ which are summer bridge programs taking place before other students arrive on campus — led to much higher retention rates.
The report also included where students ended up going after they left Knox. Students who left for financial difficulties often went to public schools or community colleges, which are generally cheaper than Knox. Students who left for academic reasons would often go to community colleges or schools with similar feels to Knox but different calendars.
Ehrlich pointed out that not many schools are on a trimester system, but as the college looks at potentially changing the calendar, improving retention would be one of the goals.
TRIO and McNair programs director Risa Lopez also noted the strain the calendar can put on students.
“I think the academic calendar is a lot of pressure, it keeps the system under pressure,” she said.
However, Ben Stefanic said he was uncertain which system he prefered. He left Knox over the summer after his sophomore year to go to Boston College, which is on semesters.
He is getting used to the semester system but said the semesters could get long and that trimesters had more flexibility with what he chose to take.
TRIO and SPARK both had higher retention rates than the school overall, despite serving first-generation and low-income students — demographics that generally have lower retention. Lopez, who was a first-generation student herself, explained that TRIO focuses on the main concerns those students have.
“It’s a new language for them. So, we spend a lot of time just trying to figure out who they are, what they’re trying to be, what they come from (…) because that all comes to the classroom with them,” Lopez said.
Half of all students at Knox meet the requirements for TRIO of being first generation, low income or disabled. So these problems are not isolated to those in the program.
The first day of the TRIO bridge program for students new to Knox helps students sort out finances. Lopez pointed out that much of the jargon around college loans and payments is something first generation students would not have seen before.
TRIO also focuses on making sure students are able to seek out help if they need it. One of the early assignments in TRIO 100 is having students go to office hours with a professor. Building personal relationships and support networks are an important part of TRIO and retention.
Ehrlich told Senate that improving relationships with advisors is also a priority for the school as a whole. Having a strong connection to a faculty member is a good indicator that students will stay at Knox. The living learning communities, which are also based around building strong faculty and peer mentor relationships, have also been doing better retention-wise, Ehrlich told TKS.
The effect of bridge programs is also being looked at. With TRIO and SPARK doing so well, Ehrlich said she and other staff are looking at how freshmen orientation works and possible changes there.
TRIO also has tutors, a writing coach and peer mentors available for students. Lopez said that TRIO students often did well in high school without having to study and so come to Knox unsure of how to study when they need to.
This year specifically has potential. Ehrlcih said retention between Fall Term 2019 and Winter Term 2020 for freshmen was 98%, up from a normal of around 95%.
Still, sometimes it really is just about fit. Ehrlich was encouraged by the fact that students who leave often go to schools that are very different from Knox.
Stefanic agreed, saying he left mostly because of fit, with Knox feeling too much like a continuation of high school, not a separate college experience.
“I feel like Knox does what it does pretty well but it didn’t end up being what I was hoping to get in my college experience,” he said.