Home Column Sue Maxam: The path to retaining students and keeping them engaged

Sue Maxam: The path to retaining students and keeping them engaged

More than 200 educators from 32 schools were represented at Pace University’s second annual retention conference on June 15, as well as several nonprofit organizations, all grappling with student success and its relationship to retention and degree attainment. Participants came to Westchester from as far as California and South Carolina for the one-day conference.

Student success and persistence to graduation is a top priority for institutions across the country and certainly for the many colleges in Westchester. Fewer than 40 percent of students enrolling for the first time at a four-year college graduate in four years. Add in community colleges, and more than half of students who start college drop out within six years. With increasingly diverse, vulnerable and at-risk student populations attending college, now more than ever it is important for faculty to effectively and creatively engage their students inside and outside the classroom.

The student body at Pace University mirrors national averages with several key contributing factors of student persistence and success: More than half are the first in their families to attend college and also more than half are low to moderate income. Many are returning adult students, veterans, students of color, international students and immigrants.

With a diverse student body with varying needs and challenges, college administrators and faculty members must seek ways to engage all students for both the success of the students and the institutions they attend. The numbers prove that an education is the best path forward and college graduates consistently out-earn those who have only a high school degree. Pace University is ranked the number one private institution for upward economic mobility in the country based on data from the Equality of
Opportunity Project.

So what can educators do to ensure student success? One of the biggest influential factors, according to national studies such as the annual National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), is the quality of interaction between faculty and students. I presented at the retention conference, along with several colleagues and a Pace law student on “Pace Path to Retention Success: Student-Faculty Engagement Outside of the Classroom.” We highlighted the connection between faculty engagement and student success and retention and offered best practices.

Demonstrated faculty concern for students has a positive, statistically significant effect on student persistence even after adjusting for a variety of pre-college characteristics, including students’ intellectual ability and academic preparedness. It has been found that student-faculty interaction outside the classroom correlates more strongly with college satisfaction than any other single variable. The frequency of student-faculty interactions correlates significantly with every academic achievement outcome, including college GPA, degree attainment, graduation with honors and enrollment in graduate or professional school.

College faculty members can interact with students in meaningful ways, including by serving as faculty advisor for a student club; participating in summer college immersion programs for incoming students; participating in residential life programs or as a faculty-in-residence; chaperoning travel courses; and leading student academic teams such as Model UN or the Federal Reserve Challenge Team. It is also important to engage from the start by meeting with prospective students during campus visits and participating in new student orientations.

Other best practices include making students aware that office visits are welcome, writing personalized notes to offer support, guidance, or positive reinforcement. Faculty were also encouraged to participate with students on faculty-student research teams. The use of technology is also recommended to increase interaction between professors and students. Online chats and “office hours” work well as a way to engage students any time of the day.

Presenters at the conference were from all over the country. Five of the presentations were facilitated by Pace faculty, along with administrators and students. These included presentations on effectively engaging and supporting veteran students as well as mindfulness-based stress reduction for students to increase resilience to stress and promote retention.

The Pace Path offers solutions to these issues with an individualized plan for success for every student that includes formalized opportunities for faculty-student engagement. It includes planning, mentorship and coaching and experiential learning. 

The goal is for students to have an academic foundation that prepares them for real-world experiences. These experiential learning opportunities are different for each student based on areas of academic and professional interest. These range from internships to participation in Pace’s winning Federal Reserve Challenge Team that competes nationally on economic policy recommendations, to the environmental policy clinic where students have written bills that have become New York State law, to criminal justice students working in area prisons with service animals.

Student-faculty interactions outside the classroom keep students engaged and committed. Real-world experiences give students the tools and skills to tackle the job market with confidence after college. As educators, we need to do more to make these opportunities available for all students.

Sue Maxam is the assistant vice president for Student Success Undergraduate Education at Pace University where she has worked for 28 years in a variety of progressively responsible leadership roles relating to student engagement, retention, advising, academic enrichment/support and career services. In her current position, she provides oversight to five units focusing on creating a transformative student experience. Maxam has created and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Peace, Justice and Sustainability, and is active in a wide variety of social justice initiatives on and off campus. She has won numerous awards for leadership, mentoring, student engagement, advising and teaching, including the 2015 NYS ACE Women’s Network Catalyst Award for Women Leaders.


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