By Richard Harris
Tyler Jonas sits in a 300-seat classroom at Florida State University, sometimes wearing a Flagler College ball cap or T-shirt.
Jonas is one of hundreds of students who transfer from Flagler College each year.
Last year, the college lost 346 students. Of those, 110 were freshman who did not return for their sophomore year.
“Where did they go? Why did they come here to begin with and why did we lose them?” said Dean of Student Services Daniel Stewart.
Colleges across the nation are dealing with the issue of lower retention rates, and Flagler is no exception.
The college’s overall freshman retention rate was around 74 percent for 2004-2005 — lower than the 78 percent national average.
The four main reasons for the loss of students were identified by a retention task force formed by College President William T. Abare, Jr. to look into the core reasons for student departure. Responses included the desire to go to a larger school, being dissatisfied with social life on campus, being dissatisfied with the community of St. Augustine and being unhappy with the rules and regulations of the college.
Jonas said he left Flagler to pursue a major the college did not offer and because of the size of the campus.
“I left because it wasn’t large enough,” he said. He admits that he fell in love with the city of St. Augustine and comes back to visit friends every few months.
Maggi Melin, on the other hand, never wanted to attend Flagler College. Her parents pressured her into applying to the “small, conservative school.”
“It was the only school they allowed me to apply to,” she said.
Melin left after her first year. She is now attending Florida Atlantic University in preparation for her admittance into the University of Florida.
The administration hopes to bring the college retention rate up to 80 percent by 2008. Teresa Farnum was the change management consultant who worked with the college on retention.
After five visits on campus, she evaluated and suggested methods of improving the student experience, from changes to student orientation, elimination of cumbersome processes, course availability and customer service.
Farnum said it was an effort to “streamline responsibility from the student to the individual office.”
Farnum says the implementation of her suggestions has aided in the improvement of retention rates. She points to the six percent increase in first to second year retention since she began working with the college.
“That’s a big jump,” Farnum said. “It usually takes years for an institution to accomplish that.”
Stewart said the freshman retention rate has increased 6.5 percent since Farnum’s involvement, citing the unusually low 2004 rate of 69.4 as the main reason for the jump. Rates previous to 2004 — all around 75 percent — indicate the low rate that year may have been an aberration.
Despite further changes, Farnum does not foresee another retention leap.
“Every college has a ceiling,” Farnum said. “But every college can continue to improve.”
Work is not over yet, however.
“It is not inconceivable to raise retention four or five percent in the next two years or so,” Farnum said. “We haven’t even implemented [everything] yet.”
Stewart admits there are some things that the college cannot change.
“We’re not going to change our rules and regulations just to keep students,” he said.
However, the college is attempting to change the things it can. A Campus Activities Board has been created under the supervision of Director of Student Activities, Carrie Meyer. Meyer believes anything that can help bond students to the college would help retention.
“Clubs and activities — specifically involvement — play a huge role in retention,” she said.
Stewart’s goal is to offer more events early in the semester in hopes of tying students to the institution. He admits there is still a long way to go, but some areas are in need of more help than others.
“Our most glaring loss was from freshman to sophomore year,” Stewart said.
As a result, the administration has made alterations to the freshman orientation program in an effort to encourage relationships among students.
This year marks the beginning of the Students Advancing In New Territory Scholastically pilot program in which 75 students were selected to partake in a revamped version of freshman seminar. Students in the program were connected with their advisors before the semester even began. The assumption is that these students will become tied to the college very early.
“Our retention percentage should skyrocket there,” Stewart said.
In addition to hiring a retention consultant, the college will also be taking a closer look at students as early as the admissions process in an attempt to identify “Flagler-type” students, according to Stewart.
“The type of student that will want to be active at night, going out to clubs and partying and have those opportunities is not a Flagler-type student,” Stewart said.
In an effort to find students more apt to graduate from Flagler, more emphasis will be placed on the college essay.
“We’re putting more emphasis on using the essay to learn about the prospective student and how well that student would fit into the college,” said Director of Admissions Marc Williar.
The idea of basing admittance on the essay is not a new idea. Williar cited an example in which an applicant expressed his love for football in his application essay.
The applicant was turned down because the college has few outlets for the football-passionate. It was assumed that the prospective student would be happier in an environment that offered more of the sport. With this type of methodology, the college hopes to admit students who will be most content with Flagler’s environment.
The cost of student recruitment is a key reason why retention rates are gaining increased attention.
“It costs more to recruit a student than it does to keep a student,” Stewart said. “If we do a better job at keeping students, then our recruitment costs will go down.”
Williar says that the college already does a good job at keeping recruiting costs below the national average.
“Nationwide it costs $450 to recruit an applicant,” he said. “At Flagler it costs about $200.”
The college maintains a 25 percent acceptance rating, meaning three out of four applicants will be turned away. Still, with the physical growth of the institution and the expected rise of tuition, retention rates become even more important, according to Stewart.
“In our admissions process we have a lot of applicants,” he said. “We’ve never had a problem. But as our [tuition] costs go up, could that now be a problem?”