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Council keeps students from falling through the cracks

Ken Boersma describes the two-year-old Retention Council as "building on a strength." "It's an additional step to maintain and improve already good retention figures," says Boersma.

Dordt College has always boasted retention figures (the percentage of first year students who return for their second year) that are comparable to highly selective colleges and universities. In fact, the rates are nearly double the average of those who, like us, admit most students who apply. The Retention Council now provides a way for the college to stay in even closer contact with students who may need extra assistance.

Pam De Jong, who directs the Academic Skills Center, receives the initial

Pam De Jong, who directs the Academic Skills Center, receives the initial "alerts" from faculty about students who are having difficulty in their classes

Registrar Jim Bos will not draw the conclusion on record yet, but statistics recorded since 2001, when the Council began, seem to indicate that the Council's work is having an effect. In the past five years, retention figures moved from 77 percent and 72 percent before the council was organized to 84 and 82 percent since 2001.

"We're better able to identify students who are struggling early on, to give them the assistance and resources they need to stay on track," says Boersma, who is vice president for student services. He notes that since the group was formed, there have been fewer academic suspensions and dismissals than previously.

The council is made up of Career Placement Director Ron Rynders, Academic Skills Center Director Pam De Jong, and Registrar Jim Bos, people who were already in close contact with students. The difference is that these three people from different parts of the college now meet weekly to compare notes and track trends.

"We look for connections between classroom and residence life reports on students who are struggling," says Bos.

Rynders adds, "When the same name begins appearing several times, we intervene." In the past, it wasn't unusual for several students to fall behind or even fail because of circumstances-a bout with mononucleosis, a death in the family, relationship problems that became consuming, the beginning of hockey season. While it doesn't guarantee anything, giving support and suggesting strategies for getting back on top of their work can help them salvage the semester.

"We don't expect a lot of surprises at the end of the semester anymore," says Rynders, even though he knows there will always be some students who will not put in the effort needed to pass their courses and so will be released. More of those students are actually withdrawing before the end of the semester now because their situation has been made clear to them.

"It's the nature of the academic semester that things get busier toward the end of the semester," says Rynders. "If we can get to students who are struggling at mid-term we have a better chance of helping them get through the rest of the semester."

"Not all students will succeed, but we want to give them the resources to make it possible if they want to," says Bos. When council members begin to feel they're trying harder to keep students here than those students are trying to stay here, they suggest it may be time for them to think about withdrawing, adds Bos.

The Retention Council's job is possible because of information channeled to them by faculty and other staff members. De Jong makes a presentation to the faculty at the beginning of the year asking them to send her an "alert" whenever they have a concern about a student. This automatically sets in motion an e-mail to the student, the advisor, and members of the council. How it gets followed up depends on the concern and the number of times a student's name comes up. De Jong may initially offer the services of the academic skills center and ask if they can be of any further assistance. Students who do not respond usually receive further contact.

"The number of 'alerts' has doubled in the past year as we've encouraged faculty to participate," says De Jong. While it has added to her workload, it has given her and the other members of the council the information they need to offer assistance. And more importantly, it has given students who need it an opportunity to succeed if they really want to.