CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As hundreds of first-time students head to West Virginia State University for the first month of classes, Brian Hemphill knows many of them might not return next year.
He's not OK with that.
Hemphill, the new president of West Virginia State, has made it his mission to turn around WVSU's historically low student retention rate by overhauling the way the Institute campus interacts with students wanting to drop out.
"We have entirely too many students who come to our campus and then for whatever reason decide to walk away from their college education," said Hemphill. "It is critical to the future of our university, it's critical to the future of those men and women and it's critical to the state."
Hemphill hopes the university's new proactive approach to keeping students in class will improve State's first-year student retention rate by 2 percent to 3 percent.
State's student retention rate of 61 percent in 2010 was the second-lowest of the four-year public institutions in West Virginia. The state average across all the public colleges and universities was 76.2 percent.
WVSU's new student-retention initiative starts with a "student alert system." When students stop showing up to classes two or three times, faculty enter information about the student's attendance into a centralized system.
Then, two university employees who act as point-people for the retention initiative, call those students to ask them why they are missing classes.
"It may seem a little intrusive -- maybe it is," said Hemphill. "But it's important. When you look at the degree completion of this state, we've got some challenges here."
Professors can then enter the student alert system and see what action WVSU took with students who are missing class, and whether students are receiving extra tutoring or counseling help.
State also is changing the way that students can withdraw from classes, adding a requirement that students meet face-to-face with a school administrator in an exit interview before they can successfully withdraw.
Students used to be able to withdraw from classes online without any personal interaction, but now, "we at least want to have the conversation," said Hemphill.
"There are a number of reasons why students drop out, but getting them connected to a professional that they can sit down and talk to will make a significant difference to them wanting to be there."
Two WVSU employees talk to students about why they're withdrawing from the courses, a move Hemphill hopes will increase dialogue and keep students in school.
"We want to keep them while they're there and help them move through to graduation," said Hemphill. "A part of the message we're trying to send is that we expect you to graduate. If you are good enough for us to admit you, you're good enough to graduate. You have to send message that we want students to be successful and we'll be there every step of the way."
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