This May, University of Alaska Southeast senior Travis Hawley will join an exclusive club - one whose ranks school officials are working hard to expand.
Hawley is set to depart UAS with a bachelor's degree in sociology, one of between 75 and 100 students who will receive bachelor's degrees this year and one of a handful who have spent their entire college career at UAS.
Whether because of limited course and degree offerings, financial troubles, a rough transition to college, homesickness or even the weather, few students at UAS stay at the school from matriculation to graduation.
University statistics show that just 21 percent of full-time bachelor's degree-seeking students who enrolled in fall 1998 are still on campus this spring. For those who enrolled in fall 1999, only 34 percent remain. The percentages are lower when applied to all students.
The college offers bachelor's degrees in liberal arts, biology, environmental science, business administration and elementary education.
This year, with a new administrator dedicated solely to the issue and a host of new programs, the university is making a concerted effort to keep students through graduation.
Dedicated to student success
When Vicki Orazem began her duties as vice provost for student success last August, UAS became the only University of Alaska campus with a position devoted to student retention.
"I look at the systems to see what is in place (and) what ways, in addition to having (more) upper-division courses, keep students here four years," she said.
Orazem works with Dean of Students Paul Kraft; she represents the academic and faculty side, while Kraft offers the perspective of student services.
Orazem and Kraft are part of the Enrollment Management Core Team, which includes representatives from the admissions, marketing, financial aid and instructional technology offices.
Kraft said the team scrutinizes the practices of each office, looking for what works and for ways to improve.
"If it works the way it's supposed to, everyone puts their ego in their back pocket," he said. "We look into each other's business and ask questions."
While improving retention is drawing a lot of effort and resources, Kraft said it is money well spent.
"It's a lot cheaper to keep a student than to recruit one," he said.
The plan starts with more focused recruiting.
"Retaining students really begins with recruiting students who want to be here," Kraft said. "We're trying to recruit students who we expect will be successful here."
Once students are on campus, UAS officials should contact them early and individually to form a plan to guide their college career, Orazem said.
"What we're trying to approach is that every student is an individual student, and we try to get a plan early. There are fabulous resources here and we want to be sure to connect them before they have trouble," she said.
Last fall, Orazem implemented a program, assisted by faculty, to find students who were missing class or struggling academically.
"We compiled a database, and the advisors connected with people and made referrals to the Learning Center," she said. The Learning Center tutors students.
In addition, more than 150 students completed an assessment last October called the College Student Inventory. The test gathered information about students' strengths and weaknesses to help advisers meet students' needs. The school also intervened mid-year with students who were struggling academically.
By touching base with students and learning about their academic plans, UAS can adjust to offer different courses as they are required, Orazem said.
"I want them to commit to an educational goal and then we, as a university, can plan for upper-division courses," she said.
How the budget may help
UAS is asking, in the University of Alaska system's capital and operating budgets, for more funds, which would be spent in ways that might help retain students.
Among the items in next year's budget, now in the hands of the Legislature, is funding for two new core liberal-arts professors, which will allow the school to expand its upper-level classes.
Next year's capital budget request includes money for UAS to build a joint recreation facility with the Alaska Army National Guard. The building would provide a lot more space for student sports and recreation than the current activities center.
Administrators see the recreation facility, along with the proposed outdoors Noyes Pavilion and the Egan Library classroom addition now under construction, as ways to make the Auke Lake campus more attractive to students.
"We expect that's going to really help us not just recruit, but retain students," Kraft said.
A student's look back
Hawley, the UAS sociology senior who expects to graduate in May, said he doesn't feel that completing a degree at UAS was an inordinately difficult task. He said he just followed the advice of faculty, mentors and advisors, and worked to create a connection with the campus and community.
Although he did reach the limit of sociology courses, Hawley said other degree requirements took up the remainder of his time.
"When I hit that ceiling, there was just enough time for me to finish (requirements) I had not done ... because I had devoted my time in my sophomore and junior years to fulfill the sociology breadth requirements," he said.
"If I hadn't utilized all the services here, I probably wouldn't have made it ... and I definitely wouldn't have made it on this timeline," Hawley said. "If you stick with the organized manner they provide you, there should really be no bumps in the road."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.