NPR discusses Millersville University's efforts to retain students

The Class of 2013 consists of hundreds of new freshmen entering the ranks of Millersville’s student body. Some of their minds are set on noticing the aspects of transitioning from high school to college. While others are more focused on handling the new concept of being away from home for school rather than being mere blocks away. Many are coordinating their partying schedules accurately, considering classes as a priority or not. Freshmen view and handle their ordeals with alternative methods; the main dilemma is retaining and preserving their interest with college to graduate with their respective degrees. Like any other college, Millersville is ramping up efforts to retain students at all costs.

On September 2nd, Millersville University was the center of discussion on the national radio station, National Public Radio, broadcasting across the country. The topic was based upon education from NPR’s section, “All Things Concerned”, discussed the problem of nearly half of all students who attend college fail to achieve their degrees because of dropping out. The article, “Colleges Ramp Up Efforts to Hold On To Students” by Larry Abramson examined Millersville’s efforts to establish their incoming students on the right track and ultimately maintain steady progress all the way to their degrees. This is easier said than done, as there are numerous factors that play in hindering a student’s morale, may it be homesickness or a bad high school relationship. “It scared the hell out of me when [my professor] said, ‘Look to your left, look to your right, one of you won’t be here next semester,’ ” says Professor Ralph Anttonen. School administrators back then were aware of students dropping out and had minimal control over the problem.

Retention, or holding on to students, is simply put as “establishing a bond between that student and something in the institution,” Anttonen says. “Be it a person, a program, a club, an activity.” Known as “Doc” to those in Millersville, he is the chief evangelist in establishing this bond that is abiding. Creating this bond is not simple, especially for teenagers. The freshman seminar is one of the first activities freshman experience at Millersville.

Professor Dan O’Neill teaches the Freshman Year Inquiry Call “Homes and homelessness” to attentive or daydreaming freshmen.

Instead of grading them based on attendance, participation, and academic progress, it is an integral part to fit freshmen into the roles as college students and citizens of the Lancaster area O’Neill is the students’ adviser. He looks at their study skills, how well they are managing their time, their alcohol use, their sexual issues – all risk factors that complicate a student’s successful progress. Exploratory freshmen can relate more easily than declared freshmen, being risk factor No. 1 with no firm interest to guide them. As if being viewed as “fresh-meat” was not enough, they are also viewed as a threatened species.

Millersville President, Fran McNairy, says students at state schools are more likely to drift away than those chosen by selective institutions. “It’s easy to be able to retain and graduate the best and the brightest,” she says. Some Ivy League schools hand off degrees to more than 90 percent of their students. Nonetheless, this state school’s retention efforts keep the graduation rate much higher than similar schools, despite being required to accept most of the students who apply.

McNairy says she is investing in retention efforts because it’s the right thing to do, and because it saves money. “When you lose a student, you have to replace a student,” McNairy says. “That costs even more because you have to recruit at least three or four students to replace one student.”

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Recruiting becomes costly when students court within an institution, only to choose another institution. The priority stressed at Millersville as a whole is holding on to students. It starts where they live, which is directed at dorm staff when they notice symptoms of depression. This includes Counseling Service, specifically the director of Counseling Service, Kelsey Backels. She states she is already seeing the initial symptoms of homesickness, a malady that drives many students home.

“Every day this week we’ve had one of our counselors on call in the office for homesick students,” Backels says. “We had one yesterday who came on Tuesday and was ready to leave on Wednesday.” Sometimes, the attention from concerned men and women at this school is not welcome. Freshmen were counseled, pep-talked, and warned during orientation about the dangers of interrupting their education.

But students have heard it all before, especially freshman Jessica Wall of Palmyra, Pa. “It’s boring, ’cause it is a lot of the same thing over and over again,” she says. “But it makes sense. It definitely will be beneficial in the long run.”