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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

How we can increase student retention rates at UMass Boston

Have you ever wondered about transferring to a different university? Has Northeastern University or Tufts ever crossed your mind as the real place to be? Have you ever pondered not finishing university? Maybe there’s a job or a family issue that takes first priority? You may be surprised to find that the student body of the University of Massachusetts Boston faces a relative decline in returning students for one reason or another.

This is not something that the students of this university should look proudly upon. In fact, it is something that we should hope to find a solution to. I went and sought out some of the reasons for this decline in retention rates. I came upon respectable research which led, every time, to resilient ideas and practices with which we can hope to solve the problem.

The first stop was with Kevin Murphy, the Associate Director for Assessment and Institutional Research. A UMass Boston graduate himself, he spoke with interest and honest concern on the subject. I asked Murphy, “Do you believe that the reason students at Boston College or Northeastern or any college with higher selectivity hold on to their students so well is because they use the acceptance rate as a marketing tool? For instance, Boston College has roughly a 30 percent acceptance rate. Is that not an incentive for new students to continue through the college or university because it is ‘elite’?”

Murpy, with prodigious confidence, told me “No,” believing that “having dormitories is the fundamental reason that students remain in their first colleges.”

Murphy emphasized that dorms are vital in creating a sense of community for the student body. Think of it this way: you and some friends live together in a place relatively, if not extremely, far from home; you go to several classes together, you go and you grab a bite to eat together, you live and make decisions independently for the first time while being involved in what might be considered small cities.

UMass Boston has almost 17 thousand students: its population is as large as some towns. There is a sense of community which is born in campus dorms of this size. Tufts University expects to retain 90-95 percent of the freshman students walking into university for the first time. Why does Tufts make this mighty assumption? Precisely because of the aforementioned reasoning; that there is a life outside of home and high school where the student can feel a part of the real world, all the while being far from it. Of course, our university has considered this and understands it. In the future, UMass Boston intends to add dorms to the campus—although the planning and discussion has come to a halt in consideration of the many other objectives the campus must first accomplish.

This is where Joan Becker comes into the story. Becker is Vice Provost for Academic Support Services. UMass Boston has a lot to thank her for, as she is greatly involved with The Boston Foundation. Becker explained that in 2009, Mayor Menino called upon the educators and supporters of Boston education to improve the state of education in this city with vigor. Vice Provost Becker told me, “On that day Menino set very ambitious goals.” The hope was to move from the 35 percent college graduation rate for Boston residents to 70 percent for the class of 2011. This was an effort which appeared most daunting for those committed to solving the problem, and thus was born The Boston Foundation (TBF).

Thus far, TBF has produced promising results. The university, thanks to a lot of devoted staff and students, can begin to take a breath. Our campus TBF program is taking first-generation college freshmen and walking them through, a step at a time, with the aid of student coaches. In the words of Joan Becker, the student coaches are “teaching them [freshmen] how to fish.” Instead of simply showing them what will happen in an orientation months before classes start, the student coaches are going through applicable processes of university life.

It is true that our university faces a problem. This is true for many other universities as well. All the same, given the facts and the details, it could not be clearer that it is our duty as UMass students to engage our friends and colleagues. We all need to a give a little more time to make our experience as powerful as it can be.

The vast majority of UMass Boston students are commuters; however, if we can all just give some time to our 17 thousand strong, we can change the state of things. After all, we must remember that some of the strongest minds in all the universities of Massachusetts, perhaps even the nation, are right here to support and allow students to grow towards their incredible potential. The very least we can do in return is show them that they have succeeded.