Discussion Around Retention Rates Continues on Campus

Bates Dining Hall during mealtime, one of the first spots students socialize on campus. Photo credit: Shivika Jindal

Bates Dining Hall during mealtime, one of the first spots students socialize on campus. Photo credit: Shivika Jindal

The question of why SLC students transfer has become a major discussion topic on campus this semester, after the College’s retention rate for the 2014-15 school year dipped below its average. The retention rate at Sarah Lawrence College after the 2014-15 school year was 83%, according to Danny Trujillo, Dean of Studies and Student Life, while the school’s average retention rate is about 85%. Retention refers to the students who remain between their first and second year of school, whereas the term ‘persistence’ is used for second to third, third to fourth and fourth year students. According to Trujillo, the school experiences the most loss amongst its first years. 

“It’s the result of multiple factors where students decide to no longer be part of this community. So, it’s an outcome. What we’re very interested in is what are the predictors, what are the factors, that contribute to that outcome. Because if you can address those factors, then you should have a positive impact on retention. But retention isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal. In my mind, the ultimate goal is how do we improve life on this campus so students want to be here? So they have a good experience? That’s the ultimate goal, it’s about the student experience,” Trujillo said.

A high indicator that a student will transfer is when he or she requests their transcript, according to Trujillo. Students who do so are administered the SLC Transcript Survey, which, among other questions, asks students to choose “factors they believe are significant contributors to their decision to leave.” Under the Social Life & Connection heading, 59% of students say they “feel lonely,” 58% cite “Difficulty making friends” and 42% indicate a “Lack of social space.” 

According to the 2011 National Survey of Student Experience, when Sarah Lawrence students were asked to rate on a scale of one to seven—one being unsupportive, seven being supportive—what “best represents the quality of your relationships with other students at your institution,” 15% of SLC first-years provided a rating between one and three. This number differs dramatically from the 7% of first-year students at cohort colleges who provided one to three ratings and the 8% NSSE average. 

“The students [who] report feeling lonely, who report difficulty making friends, who feel like the quality of relationships with other students isn’t as positive and there’s not enough support for them to thrive socially are the ones also, as a correlate, tend not to stay at Sarah Lawrence,” Trujillo explained.

Extensive conversations have been taking place within groups such as Student Senate, The Undergraduate Committee on Student Life, The Board of Trustees and Student Trustees to address the social climate on campus as well as to find tactics that make first-year students feel more welcome, according to Trujillo. The Peer Mentor program was started as a way to address this problem by reaching out to freshmen even before they reach campus. 

“Research has shown that if students are ambivalent or uncertain about whether or not they want to be at a particular university or college, that they really do tend to make that decision within the first six weeks” Trujillo said. “It happens very quickly. Part of what we need to do is make sure that students are getting an honest and true representation of the Sarah Lawrence experience in that first six weeks and that they’re getting exposed and connected.”

Those who report the highest satisfaction scores tend to be students who are international, on team sports, participate with the pre-orientation Yonkers Leadership program, or who are part of the international arrival pre-orientation program. The common theme amongst these students is that they make connections with peers in school sponsored groups before the academic year begins. 

“Typically, the sooner a student finds that niche or that place, the more satisfied they are and the more likely they are to retain,” Trujillo said. “So, part of it is the social network, part of it is finding a fit into campus, and the third part is just general connection with other students, which becomes very important. Again, feeling lonely or difficulty making friends, that’s a huge challenge to whether or not a student decides to stay here.”

However, for some students, such as a first-year who prefers to remain anonymous, the possibility of transferring does not stem from the SLC’s social climate. Rather, it is more about personal fit on campus.

“With the kids I’m talking to, I really like everybody,” the student said. “I feel like I know a lot of people. I’ll be able to walk to class usually with seeing at least two people I know. It feels welcoming.” This student is considering transferring to NYU next year to be closer to old friends and to pursue the acting programs available there. 

“One of [the reasons for possibly transferring] realistically being that two of my closest friends are going there, and also its reputation as a school and the alumni it has,” the student explained. “NYU’s acting program seems way more serious and it’s easier to understand too, which is weird because you’d think it would be easier to understand here. Here, you have to sign up on all these different sheets and sign up earlier, whereas with NYU it’s just the auditions and then if you do well, you’re in. So the main aspect, I would say, is acting. For NYU it’s, like, way more focused on that, with Tisch [School of the Arts] and everything like that. There’s not enough of that here, in my opinion.”

According to Trujillo, relaying information to students about what the college has to offer is an important aspect of retention. 

“Some students have said they’re just not aware of what resources are available, or not aware of how [they] can gain an internship, or not aware of fieldwork experiences and how to take something like an internship or a community partnership non-profit work for academic credit and make that an academic experience as well as a practice based learning experience. Talking about practice based learning experience becomes very important and something that we’re addressing, talking about, making sure students are aware of what’s provided, not only in career services, but across the college…The other side of it is making sure that students who come here know what Sarah Lawrence is about and understand from the educational pedagogy, to the climate, to the amount of work, the rigorous academic standards and conference work, these are all very unusual experiences and very important to our educational process,” he said.

Trujillo, who is experiencing his first year working at SLC alongside the freshman class, is currently focusing on data collection to understand what causes students to transfer. His ultimate goal is to enhance the student experience and to do this, he believes that “student ownership is primary.”

“The more students take ownership of what happens on this campus, whether it’s social, whether it’s extracurricular, community partnership based, whatever it may be, the higher level of student ownership, the more of what happens on campus is really going to be designed for students; and that’s important because anything that I create is not going to be as effective as what students create. I mean, everyone knows that. So, student ownership of this becomes absolutely critical, and that is not just socially, but in residence, everywhere. Every part of the student experience, students have to have a say and have to help guide and develop how we do what we do for students,” he said.

Trujillo believes retention is a work in progress, something that must be continually worked toward and improved; “I think the final part is you can always enhance, we can always do better. Regardless of the area or areas of concern, I believe we can always do better.”

Gloria Cowdin '19

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