By Daniel C. Houston
Of 3,259 first-time freshmen who set foot on campus in the fall 2010 semester, 476 opted not to return for their sophomore year, according to Baylor’s Office of Institutional Research and Testing. While some assume students leave because their scholarship packages fail to keep up with rising tuition costs, data compiled by the office of the provost indicate people leave for a variety of reasons, some of which supersede or exacerbate financial difficulties.
In an effort to analyze the most effective ways to boost student retention rates, the university has been working to isolate significant variables that might affect a student’s decision to return, said Dr. Sinda Vanderpool, assistant vice provost for enrollment management.
“We actually did logistical regression where you basically compare like students to each other and see which individual factors rise to the top,” Vanderpool said. “We never found that finances were a single factor that rises to the top when you’re doing logistical modeling. That was surprising to all of us.”
Vanderpool said the factor isolated most frequently with regard to retention rates is a student’s first-semester grade point average. She did not entirely rule out the impact finances can have on a student’s decision.
Vanderpool said many financial difficulties students face are the result of academic performance, which can influence the number of merit-based scholarships for which students are eligible.
“The finances have an impact [on retention], but they come up because of academic performance,” Vanderpool said.
Last year, 8,053 undergraduate students — or 66.1 percent of the total undergraduate population — applied for financial aid. Of those applicants, 57.4 percent were found to have financial need, and nearly two-thirds of the average amount needed per student were satisfied by various scholarships and loans.
In total, 6,986 undergraduate students received financial aid in the 2010-2011 academic year, and 6,051 received merit-based scholarships, which typically require the recipient to maintain a minimum-GPA requirement in order to keep the award.
Although academic performance appears to be a key influencing factor, not all students who leave Baylor for academic reasons are failing academically.
In some circumstances, a student may fall short of retaining a scholarship by failing to meet GPA requirements established by the university.
Upon the first instance of students dropping below the average required, they are placed on academic probation, during which time they are given the opportunity to raise their grades and keep their scholarship. If the student is unable to raise his or her grades, the scholarship may be lost.
When students lose scholarships for this reason, they may be circumstantially forced to leave Baylor despite having higher grades than many of their peers, as in the case of former Fort Worth Baylor student Tim Reed.
Reed attended Baylor for five semesters on a scholarship that required him to keep a 3.5 GPA. At one point, Reed fell below the 3.5 GPA required to keep his scholarship but was able to raise his grades and keep his scholarship during the probation period. After his grades subsequently slipped below 3.5 for a second time, he lost his scholarship and financial ability to continue his education at Baylor.
“It was pretty rough,” Reed said. “I was disappointed in myself for letting that happen … . I was just also upset because I had a lot of really close friends at Baylor and I wasn’t ready to leave. I didn’t want to leave Baylor because … the campus life was a really important thing for me and I wasn’t ready for that to be over.”
Vanderpool said a student’s involvement on campus is another significant factor that can influence retention, pointing to data that indicates students who participate in on-campus student organizations and university programs are significantly less likely to leave.