Already a leader in student retention rates for public universities, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) hopes to further improve in this area with a variety of goals and initiatives.  

In the annual State of the University address on Feb. 9, UNH President James Dean re-emphasized the university’s four strategic priorities: enhance student success and wellbeing, expand academic and research excellence, embrace New Hampshire, and build financial strength. These four priorities aim to guide UNH to the overarching goal of becoming a top 25 public university in many important measures of academic performance. 

“One of our most important student success initiatives is to enhance our already strong results for student retention. Our graduation rates are already among the top 50 public universities, and are steadily improving,” Dean said. 

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Wayne Jones gave an update on the “enhance student success and wellbeing” goal, including progress in student retention rate and new initiatives aimed to improve these numbers. The overarching goal regarding student retention is to reach above 90% across all demographics.  

Jones believes a key factor in improving retention is engaging with students early on in their college career.  

The university’s orientation program, Wildcat Days, has been completely revamped, creating a more engaged experience. The “LinkedUp” app, which originated in Paul College, has been expanded to be used university-wide. Another successful effort to increase retention has been the “early alerts” pilot program, where hundreds of students received personal messages from faculty during the fifth week of the semester, followed by communications and appointments to check in with the students and provide the proper support resources. This program has been approved by the faculty senate, and will be implemented this semester for all new students – first-years and transfer students.  

The College of Liberal Arts’ (COLA) peer-to-peer mentoring program is another example of this. 

While student retention took a hit across the country, UNH saw a modest increase in the last year, from 85.7% to 86.4%. “I would submit however that we have far to go. We believe that we should be above 90% – competitive with the best public universities in the country. In fact, in Durham this year, we hit 90% [retention] for in-state students. This goal is achievable if we remain focused,” Jones said. 

Additionally, this semester the faculty senate will be reviewing a proposal to add greater emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, and sustainability to the university’s Discovery program.  

In addition to student retention, graduation rates and post-college opportunities are key parts of the “enhance student success and wellbeing” strategic priority. In 2020, 81% of graduating seniors had completed at least one internship – up 3% from the previous year. Career and Professional Success (CaPS) has continued to build partnerships between industry, faculty and nonprofit sectors to create internship opportunities. 

In 2020, 91% of undergraduate students and 94% of graduate students were placed in postgraduate appointments or employment within three months of graduating. Additionally, UNH Law School has been ranked in the top ten of all law schools for successful job placement at law firms following graduation. 

“UNH does very, very well with retention…  student success is job one and UNH has an uncommon commitment to student success. I’ve worked at a number of different institutions and UNH really, really stands out. As a result we have a very good retention rate. However, it is an area where I think we could improve,” said Jones in an interview with The New Hampshire.  

He reiterated the university’s goal to surpass a 90% rate of student retention across the university. 

One group of students the university is targeting to improve retention is those with “Undeclared” majors. “So, we’ve been trying to create new pathways so that students can come in and explore and get into their major that they want to,” Jones said in an interview with TNH. 

Another area of focus was first generation, low income, and students from marginalized communities and backgrounds. Some of these students are supported by the TRIO program, which saw a 97% retention rate, a program UNH hopes to expand.  

Jones said that while the coronavirus (COVID-19) affects everything, it has not changed the university’s goals surrounding student engagement and retention. “We want all of our students to succeed, whether we’re in a pandemic or not, and retention is the first step toward making sure that we get it, we get students to graduate in four years to making sure that those students find success after graduation,” Jones said.  

The goals for improving student retention are both broad and targeted towards first-generation, low-income, and marginalized communities, as those are areas to move the needle more.  

“I think there’s always a perception that retention is the faculty’s job, or it’s the advisor’s job… It’s really everybody’s job. I think we all want our community to be successful. Whether you’re a faculty member working hard to help your students be successful in the classroom, or you’re a staff member that’s helping them find the resources they need to be successful, or you’re helping serve food in HoCo, or you’re a friend, a peer, a junior helping out a freshman,” Jones said.  

“I think it’s all of our responsibility, and when we start focusing on it in that way I think we as a community will do much better and that’s how we’re going to get above 90%,” he said. 

Photo courtesy of the University of New Hampshire Today