When Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, Ph.D., became president of St. John’s University in 2014, he made student success and retention central to his strategic priorities. An economist by training, he instinctively knew that in order to implement an institution-wide shift, he would need to make greater information sharing and the use of data analytics the “new normal” at the 148-year-old Catholic and Vincentian University in Queens, NY.
To learn more about the issues students faced, faculty, administrators and staff had to coordinate better and communicate more clearly so as to integrate the retention strategies. “We had many people who cared about students at St. John’s,” says President Gempesaw. “The challenge was that they were fragmented.”
President Gempesaw created a sense of shared responsibility on campus and leaders like Jacqueline Grogan, Ed.D., responded. When Grogan spots students looking at a map on campus, she doesn’t hesitate to approach them and ask if she can take them where they need to go. “When you talk to students along that walk, you can find out a lot about them,” says Grogan, who is associate provost for student success. “And more so, they learn about you. This is my chance to tell them how wonderful St. John’s is.”
Her gesture is symbolic of President Gempesaw’s approach to incoming freshmen. Following a series of policy decisions and other efforts to make students feel at home on campus, St. John’s has boosted its overall retention rates from 79 percent in 2013 to 84 percent just three years later. In 2016, 80 percent of African-American students returned for their sophomore year, compared with 72 percent in 2013; and 81 percent of Hispanic students also returned for their sophomore year, up from 76 percent in 2013.
Policies driven by data
With a significant proportion of Pell Grant recipients, the University already had a strong record in assisting students from less privileged backgrounds. In an assessment conducted by The Chronicle in 2014 of student-mobility rates — students’ ability to move from a position among the bottom 20 percent for household earnings to the top 20 for individual earnings — St. John’s ranked first among all Catholic colleges and universities — and second among all private not-for-profit institutions.
One of the difficulties administrators faced was making effective use of the information available. “You have a lot of data at a university,” explains Jorge Rodriguez, St. John’s vice provost and chief enrollment officer. “The question is: How do you make use of data to ensure student success?”
Administrators focused specifically on why some students struggled to complete their first year. Several issues came to the forefront. The first was finances: many students underestimated the challenge of paying for their education and living expenses. Additionally, some students, particularly those from faraway states, had difficulties adapting to a new environment in New York City. It became clear, too, that students who lived on campus had lagging retention rates. This contradicted the published data, which indicated that living on campus improves retention, but finances again played a part: living with parents is less expensive and therefore more manageable cost wise, than paying for college accommodation.
The University also analyzed the high schools in its recruitment pool to discern which ones sent the students most likely to succeed in college. It found that freshmen coming from Catholic high schools and from New York and the surrounding northeast corridor were the most likely to persist and stay in school. Enrollment Management refined their recruitment policies accordingly to seek out students from the local area.
Communicating a caring vision
President Gempesaw encouraged different divisions to communicate with one another. More than 100 faculty, administrators, staff and students began to meet annually at the president’s retreat, and Rodriguez, in Enrollment Management, now communicates on a weekly basis with teams that deal directly with students and prospective students. “We bring everybody together,” Rodriguez says, “the director of admissions, the registrar, the director of the Freshman Center, the bursar, the financial aid directors. Every week, we all get together, and hear what the admissions counselors have to say about who they’re recruiting, what students are saying about St. John’s, and what they hear about St. John’s out there in the world. We crystallize the challenges we’re facing and how to work on those challenges.”
Research also suggests that having a mentor in college improves both a student’s academic performance and emotional well-being. Mindful of the data, St. John’s developed two mentoring programs to help the students most likely to need assistance. In the SAFE (student and faculty engagement) program, faculty, administrators, staff and current students reach out to incoming freshmen to help them make the transition to college. The RISE (reach, inspire, succeed and empower) network aims to support African-American and Hispanic-American freshmen students in their academic, personal, and professional development.
In response to students’ financial challenges, administrators took the bold step of freezing tuition, and not only that — they reduced the fees at the Staten Island campus by $10,000, in recognition of the fact that it offered fewer of the more expensive programs than the other campuses. These initiatives meant foregoing $14 million per year in potential tuition revenues. However, according to President Gempesaw, the strategy paid off, because retention rates vastly improved. “The tuition freeze was an initiative for financial purposes that promoted student success — it ensured that students did not feel this financial burden excessively,” he says. The University also expanded fund-raising efforts through the “Partners for Student Success” initiative, increasing the value of institutional scholarships by matching donors’ gifts.
Changing patterns, and lives
The University also expanded its academic and social support facilities, such as the Freshman Center, where advisers assist students at a critical phase in their education, and the University Learning Commons, which provides academic tutoring. In addition to an overarching retention strategy and careful analysis of data, Grogan says that small efforts towards individual students are important. “We look at retention as a community-wide responsibility,” she says. “But it’s also just the little things — making sure that every student has an adviser, making sure that each student feels part of the fabric of this community — is really what’s going to help retention.”
For President Gempesaw, making sure students finish their degrees is part of a bigger picture. In 2011, research from the College Board showed that individuals with bachelor’s degrees earned $21,000 more than those with only a high-school education. Enhancing students’ opportunities for future success fulfills St. John’s Catholic and Vincentian mission of providing quality education, particularly to those most in need.
“We don’t just look at student success as a one-year goal, or as a graduation goal,” says President Gempesaw. “We take a holistic view of the life cycle of those from the younger generation who come to the University, and we look at the success that happens in their lives twenty, thirty, forty years from now.”
This content was paid for and created by St. John’s University.
The editorial staff of The Chronicle had no role in its preparation.