Recruit & Retain (Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology)

Guiding Students to Graduation

Those of us who work in higher education know that much has been written about the rate of degree completion (or lack thereof) seen across the diverse landscape that is higher education in the United States. The media have found a field ripe for examination while parents, ever concerned about the rising costs associated with a college degree, demand an explanation of the “value add” of an institution versus its competitors.

The degree is no longer viewed as the entryway to a bright future. Rather, it is more likely to be seen as a commodity to be thumped, weighed and purchased like fresh produce. Often lost in this cacophony of public discourse is the student. I firmly believe that higher education is not just about opportunity, but also about the responsibility to students in the admissions process. We can achieve the second by developing a model that identifies those students with the highest chances of success based on an institution’s unique qualities and expectations.

Predicting Success

In 2011, Rose-Hulman examined the relationship between our admissions criteria and our student success experiences. While freshman to sophomore retention was still strong at 88 percent, it had slipped from 91 percent in four years. To the enrollment management team this was frustrating, for we believe that we have a direct responsibility to the student and family that says an offer of admission means “you can graduate from here.” Traditional criteria indicated that classes were even stronger than previous years, but were being retained at a lower level.

After 25 years as an admissions officer and enrollment manager, I personally was conflicted. I had always been frustrated by the phenomena of two students, identical in academic preparation, recommendations and test scores, having wildly different success in our demanding curriculum. What were we missing? Analysis of the typical parts of an application for admission held few clues. There had to be a better way. Alternatives had to be found that would bolster our admissions and retention efforts.

We began by identifying the attributes we believe make a great
engineer, scientist and mathematician — strong intellect, curiosity and determination. We also wanted to identify those characteristics that coincided with success in career and life. While recent articles about college success zero in on the often mentioned but ill-defined “grit,” we wanted to dive deeper to understand the applicants’ view of themselves, the world, and their place in this relationship.

After much searching, we discovered the Locus of Control inventory (LCI). LCI had been in existence for many years and had a robust body of research behind it. This inventory measures how individuals view the world and their control over their lives. In its broadest terms, “internal control” individuals view the world as a place where they have control and can determine their future through their own actions. “I need help; I will go to the tutoring center” versus an “external control” view that perceives the world as the controller of their life. “I don’t understand and it is the professor’s fault I am not learning.”

Making the Right Choice

We started administering the LCI to our freshmen beginning in 2012 to develop a baseline of data. In the process, we found some correlation between the LCI, the academic preparation of the student and their probability of enrolling the sophomore year.

In the fall of 2013, freshmen with high external control scores and in the bottom quarter of the entering class were provided individualized counseling. Through the efforts of a team consisting of enrollment management and student affairs professionals and faculty members, individualized programs were developed to enhance the chances for success among those identified as at risk.

In three years, we have raised the retention rate from freshman to sophomore year to more than 93 percent. Given the above, we have included the LCI as an optional part of our application for freshman admission this year. The LCI scores will be used to differentiate between students of like academic backgrounds. Do we see this as a panacea for the admission process? Of course not, but I believe alternative processes could move us one step closer to fulfilling the compact we form with families in the admissions process.

Ultimately, we would like to see two students with comparable academic backgrounds experience similar opportunity for academic success. If we can find better ways to select the “right” student for our institution, we will have taken another step toward fulfilling our obligation to admit students who can graduate and go on to successful and fulfilling lives.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

James A. Goecker is vice president of enrollment management and strategic communication at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, IN (www.rose-hulman.edu).

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