Retention and the Academic Center

Shirley E. Arnold
Director
Academic Enrichment Center
Brevard College

One of the hot button topics on college campuses today is retention! Today’s college students love to flirt with transferring, as many of them do not have a strong commitment or allegiance to the college at which they matriculate. Students seem to change colleges on a whim: a girl friend talks her boy friend into coming to the school she’s attending after their first semester apart; another student leaves due to a (perceived) lack of campus social activity; yet a third student never intended to stay in the first place; etc. Of course, there are always the students who talk transfer right down to the day before the next semester’s classes begin, only it is just that: talk. So what does the college – in this case a small private liberal arts college – do to retain its students?

If only there were an “Easy Button”™ answer! You’ve seen the television commercials where the office worker uses the “Easy Button”™ to solve all the office problems instantaneously. Well, I want one to use on college students who think transferring after one semester or one year is the best thing to do. Press the “Easy Button” ™ and the student sees that deciding an entire academic future on the basis of a high school romance is not the most prudent option. Press the “Easy Button”™ and the next student becomes aware of all the activities on campus that she or he had formerly ignored. Press the “Easy Button”™ and the student finally talks, really talks, to an academic advisor, finds a field of major interest, gets involved in a club, establishes some basic time management skills, realizes that the problems that dog him or her on the present campus are not likely to go away simply by moving elsewhere. If only it were that simple to keep students from making a capricious choice to transfer when staying put might be a wiser solution!

Unfortunately, though, we do not yet have an “Easy Button” ™ to fix the retention problem. No single factor accounts for students’ decisions to leave the college they have been attending, and no single angle of response can fully address the situation. A composite approach, combining academics and campus life and athletics and other key functions of the campus, from housekeeping to the president’s office, is necessary. One valuable element in this composite approach, I think, is the presence of an academic enrichment center. Such a center provides students with a gathering place that offers them a welcoming environment in which to study and work on projects; it further incorporates support programs to enrich the academic life of the student. Whilethe college library remains the primary  place for professionally-assisted research and the quietest place for study, the creation of an academic center offers the option for study in a more casual and collaborative atmosphere.

The mission of an academic center should be inclusive of all students rather than focusing on those in academic difficulty – especially if one of the reasons for creating such a center is helping with student retention. The academic center should be as student-friendly as possible and appeal to a wide variety of students. The honors biology students working up their poster presentation for a regional  conference should feel as at home in the center as the first-year math student getting tutoring in college algebra; the individual who wants to work on a research paper, with or without the help of a writing lab assistant, should feel as eager to go to the center as the members of the C. S. Lewis seminar who are building their model of the ship the Dawn Treader for use in a class presentation. Again I emphasize that the center is not in competition with the library, but rather complements the library’s mission for students. In some cases housing the academic center within the college’s library provides the natural merger of the two academic settings to enhance the academic life of students. When this merger cannot happen, then the two separate programs actively work together providing alternative settings for students to study. The academic center and the college library working together can go far in helping with student retention even if they are in separate locations.

The creation of an academic center provides “one stop shopping” for today’s college student who wants everything at his/her fingertips. As such, it has a great deal to contribute toward student retention. The idea is to go beyond just the usual academic support programs – writing lab, math lab, tutoring, providing accommodations for students with learning disabilities – in order to include other aspects of programming that are important to today’s student. For example, the academic center can provide an office for career services and build in programming for first year students that brings them in for career counseling and assistance in choosing a major. Such programming can be easily accomplished via an academic class, such as a First Year Forum, scheduled for a meeting in one of the academic center’s study/conference rooms. Introducing first-year students early in the semester to the academic center for a specific reason not related to academic support eases the stigma sometimes associated with academic centers. The professor of a first- ear class, in consultation with the career services director and the center’s director, can use a portion of the course to introduce the students to the many functions of the academic center. When students can see first- and the friendly, non-threatening atmosphere of the academic center, they are more likely to come again and use the center to study or seek tutoring help.

Another important way in which an academic enrichment center helps with retention is through its student assistants. When carefully chosen and trained, these assistants are the best advertisement an academic center can have, as they know first-hand the value associated with the central location for the various programs. Some student assistants serve as tutors for various subjects and/or conduct sessions for the writing and math labs located in the academic center. Perhaps even more important: student assistants can be like magnets as they draw in other students to meet them in the center to prepare for a class project, or simply encourage their friends to stop in when they are on the job staffing the center’s welcome desk. Students visiting the center in turn witness their classmates studying singly, in twosomes, or in larger groups in a commons area or a study/conference room, with their books and snacks and beverages (in closed containers!) spread comfortably around them. The atmosphere is infectious, as the center becomes a hub of activity – a place for students to gather, and a visual reinforcement of the primary academic mission of the institution.

The value of peers in getting their friends in for an initial look at the opportunities and offerings of the center should never be underestimated. This is especially the case for those students who believe themselves “above” the need for academic assistance. Once such students see that even faculty members sometimes hang out in the center to talk about a class or a project or a paper they themselves are working on, the students are more likely to avail themselves of some of the opportunities that could make their college experience richer, more rewarding – and more lasting!

An academic enrichment center is no “Easy Button” ™ for retention. But it can be an effective part of a comprehensive plan to meet the composite needs of today’s college students for academic stimulation, career planning, study skill assistance, and general social connection. Such a center says loudly to prospective students and parents as well as to current students and their families, “We care – about you as a fully successful member of this academic community.” And let’s face it: there can never be too many “We care” buttons on a campus, or in the world!