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Student Retention: Roadblocks and Roadways


Willie J. Gilchrist


Clearly, academicians in the 21st century are confronted with increasingly complex demands. Indeed, one of the most pressing concerns I face as chancellor at a historically black institution is student retention.
At the same time, it is critical to emphasize that retention has been a perennial challenge for higher education practitioners and academic leadership for some time now. We are gravely concerned with how to minimize student attrition, as the implications for failure are detrimental not only to our students, but also to our institutions and society as a whole. In addition, federal and state entities continue to direct higher education in the efficient use of financial resources, at a time when we are faced with shrinking appropriations, which could result in financial paralysis for almost any institution. To that pressure, add responding to accrediting agencies while attempting to remain advanced in our technologies.
Meanwhile, there is no question that the reasons students leave our campuses are multifaceted and, admittedly, sometimes difficult to understand. Declining retention rates are not a recent conundrum, and student withdrawals have been recognized as a major enigma all across this country. Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) has wrestled with how to ameliorate retention, and though much work remains, there is evidence that our efforts have been fruitful.
ECSU has positioned itself to thrive in this ever-evolving and increasingly complex global society. We realize the urgency of embracing a campus-wide retention initiative that is supported in the literature and steeped in data. For example, according to U.S. News and World Report, the average retention rate for first-time, full-time freshmen entering ECSU from 2005 to 2008 is 76 percent. Compared to peer institutions—and to our own historical rates—we are making progress. In 2009, the average retention rate for our peer institutions was 64 percent. Our 2009 retention rate was 10 percentage points higher. From 2004 to 2008, our average six-year graduation rate hovered at 47 percent, which placed our institution in a comparable and competitive position relative to our sister historically black colleges and universities in North Carolina.

Through abundant emphasis, we promote the notion that our students come first in the decisions we make and the actions we take. Our mission statement, strategic plan, core values, institutional goals, and culture speak to the importance of a “students come first” philosophy. It is imperative that everyone on the campus of ECSU engage and evince the philosophy that our processes and procedures must benefit our students. Our University Retention Committee, which consists of constituents from all across campus, tackles the roadblocks that impede student success.
Evaluating retention from this multifaceted angle enables our institution to counter issues that foster student attrition. In this regard, every entity on campus is involved with sustaining student matriculation so that the roadway to graduation is not an arduous one.
​Willie J. Gilchrist is chancellor of Elizabeth City State University.