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UNB looking to improve student drop-out rates

Colin McPhail
The Brunswickan (University of New Brunswick)

FREDERICTON (CUP) — The Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission (MPHEC) reported in a recent survey that post-secondary institutions in the Maritimes lose about 33 per cent of students at the end their first year. Of that, the humanities, arts, and social sciences faculties endure the lowest retention rate, with only 73 per cent of students returning for year two.

It’s a trend Scott Duguay is all too familiar with.

The special assistant to the vice-president academic at the University of New Brunswick has watched enrolment rates etch a consistent path up and down graphs for the past decade — UNB rounding out at just over 12,000 for the Fredericton and Saint John campuses. The rates haven’t fallen, but more importantly for Duguay, they haven’t gone up.

This is why the university administration has pledged to enhance the student experience and boost retention through a number of initiatives falling under the Student Experience Measurement Plan.

Duguay, who is spearheading the project, has scoured the MPHEC database in search of trends and a possible answer to increasing student persistence. However, the figures only tell part of the story. It’s the “whys” that get him.

“If you’re looking at retention, you could say, ‘How many students do I have in a program?’ and then, ‘How many students do I have in the program next year?’” he said. “But they could be completely different students.”

Duguay said with universities exchanging transfer students, the numbers can be misleading. He wants to know what prompted the transfer? What made them dropout? What can be done differently?

UNB’s own research demonstrates the most popular factors in students leaving fall outside the academic realm. Financial planning and time management top the list of many, Duguay said. However, the need for a more in-depth and accurate depiction remains.

“If we can start narrowing it down to the ‘why’s and start focusing on the groups with similar issues, then that’s when we can start targeting the programs to help students directly,” Duguay said.

His team has been mining data from the past decade, following student numbers to see what trends exist. He said it’s important to see where transfer students end up to have a better grasp on what the university’s programming might be lacking.

Duguay hopes to start answering questions within a year.

As for student persistence, the university enlisted the services of a firm specializing in survey engineering and questionnaire development and assessment to get real time feedback through new media. Duguay said they would be getting the information from “the experts” themselves.

“The experts, if you will, on the UNB experience are students, faculty, and staff – those who are actually getting the experience,” Duguay said. “So, this program we’re launching is getting the feedback back to us.”

Among the various group-monitoring situations includes the vice-president groups on student experience – led by vice-president academic Dr. Tony Secco – that consists of a collection of administrators analyzing student satisfaction.

“The idea is to bring all the good work that is happening on campus in pockets, if you will, into a strategic focus plan moving forward and communicate back to the community what our retention priorities and student persistence and that sort of thing,” Duguay said.

The need for stable or increasing retention rates is pertinent to the financial administrators as well. The university uses a predictive number to account for the level enrolment when outlining the annual operating budget. Tuition fees account for roughly 30 per cent of the budget, and a significant drop could lead to a shortfall.

Jordan Thompson, president of the UNB students’ union, said addressing the needs of first-year students from the start is paramount in producing stronger rates.

“It’s very important to have sessions during orientation week to help transition students to university life,” he said.

The students’ union works with the university in planning academic orientation, and despite not having a specific program dedicate to student retention, the union has several members sitting on various groups dedicated to improving the student experience.

Duguay offers a transitioning workshop for first-year students in multiple faculties during academic orientation as well.

“Bringing expectations and reality together is key to a student’s success,” he said.

Although keeping students is at the forefront of the Student Experience Measurement Plan, the core concept is improving student life and services for everyone at UNB.

“It’s one thing to retain students, it’s another to increase the experience of those who would stay anyway,” Duguay said.

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