At the end of her first year at Carleton University, Stephanie Hamway was struggling with poor grades and a program she didn’t like. “I rushed into university before I fully realized what I wanted to do,” she says. But after spring finals, she got an email from the school’s Student Academic Success Centre, offering to help her create a plan to fix it. Today, in her third year, she has an A average.
Identifying at-risk students and getting them the help they need to stay on track is an obstacle all universities encounter, though some more than others. Retention rates, measured as the number of students who go on from first year to second year, range from a low of 70.3 per cent at Brandon University to a high of 95 per cent at Queen’s University.
Some universities, like Carleton, have realized that students won’t ask for help until it’s too late. That’s why, after mid-terms and finals, the academic success centre reviews grades from the registrar and contacts struggling students directly. They aren’t always easy to convince. “Identifying them is one thing,” says Suzanne Blanchard, associate vice-president of students and enrolment. “Getting them in for help, we’re working on.”
Blanchard estimates that only 30 to 40 per cent of students accept help. To try to reach the school’s goal of helping three-quarters of struggling students, Carleton added a walk-in program in September for students staring down an impending exam.
Hamway didn’t need convincing after she was contacted. Her adviser laid out the options: continue, drop out, take a year off, transfer to a college or change majors. She opted to switch majors. “I love the program I’m in now, which has given me a lot of motivation,” she says.
Research on what improves retention is sparse, but a recent study by Ross Finnie, a University of Ottawa economist, determined that the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Traditional thinking has been that at-risk students come from particular demographics, like francophones in Ontario, or visible minorities. Finnie found little correlation between coming from a group that is underrepresented at university and making it beyond first year. He concluded that universities should focus instead on individual students with low marks.
Hamway is glad that Carleton is doing just that. It helped her realize something important: “There’s a lot of support for people who may not have the grades—they shouldn’t just give up.”