The University’s retention rates are dropping: Why are students leaving?

Keara Savage, Contributing Writer

It is late August in central Pennsylvania. The air is sweet and balmy, and the sun has dipped just below the pale-grey waves of mountains that spread over the horizon. Atop a hill not far from the downtown streets of Lewisburg, Pa., stand the tall brick buildings of Bucknell University, and on this special eve, a sea of first-year strangers proceed through the school’s Christy Matthewson Gates. This walkthrough of the official entryway of the University is a symbolic act of initiation and the beginning of a student’s four years. As they are herded through this portal, students’ hearts leap with anticipation for the future that waits ahead. They wonder who they will be, what they will do, and where they will go. Four years later, upon graduation, these students will once more walk the Christy Matthewson Gates, though they will instead proceed out into the world with a loaded toolbox of time and knowledge on their belts.

Inevitably, some of these newcomers will not leave the University after four years via this exit, for they will transfer.

A study conducted defines retention as “the rate of matriculated students who remain at a school into their second year.” They note that the average retention rate at four-year private non-profit institutions was 80 percent from Fall 2017 to 2018. Comparatively speaking, the University has done well with their scores, “traditionally hover[ing] between 88-92 percent.” The purpose of this Task Force’s study was to recognize and understand the “8-12 percent of students Bucknell does not retain” through the use of exploring data trends from student “Exit Interviews” or Predictive Analytic models. One must keep in mind that this study is recent, and their goals for increasing the University’s retention will take time and work. It is also worth noting, however, that this number has trended downwards since 2016. Therefore, as a collective, the student body, faculty, staff and administration must work together to address and reflect upon the issues on our campus to create a space in which everyone can thrive.

This article will offer an intimate and informal glance into the reality of why students are leaving. Four former University students have responded to a few simple questions regarding their choice to transfer. These interviews demonstrate similar trends pertaining to the factor(s) that contribute to a student’s decision to leave.

Two of these students, Zoe Stupek and Nick Lizana, were athletes at the University, playing on one of the University’s D1 sports teams. The two others, Keeley Schulman and Andrea Sanchez, chose the school simply for its overall academic appeal. With the exception of one, the general consensus is that these transfer students knew they were unhappy at the University right from the start. The issues they were having remained consistent and unchanged, regardless of how long they stayed.
“I had thought about transferring all freshman year but finally pulled the plug and told my parents I wanted to transfer in September of sophomore year,” Stupek said.

“I knew I wasn’t happy at Bucknell after week 3, honestly. I kept trying to like it and convince myself but I already knew it wasn’t my place,” Schulman, who felt similarly, said.

For Schulman, however, Bucknell felt like the right place until sophomore year sorority recruitment. “I decided I wanted to transfer from Bucknell when I got blacklisted from all sororities,” Schulman said.

The next question asked about the defining reasons that led to the decision to transfer. For the majority of these students, this choice was primarily related to the isolating nature of the University’s social environment, the geographical location of campus and the lack of opportunity for general wellbeing and academic success.

“There was a point where my growth became stagnant. I felt like the person I had become no longer had opportunities for further development at Bucknell [and] I did not feel particularly challenged… Bucknell does not offer nearly as much support for the liberal arts education as it claims to provide,” Sanchez said.

“Bucknell felt very baby to me… [It] doesn’t have a lot of normal college experiences that people look forward to (ie. athletic pride/football game days, bars, sorority houses), oh and not to mention living in a dorm until you’re a literal senior in college is actually appalling… In terms of athletics, considering themselves a “division one” stumbled me when I came to find how underfunded all of our athletic programs are,” Stupek said.

Another defining factor was that of isolation, with a mix of boredom.
“I felt isolated as a minority and suffered periods of immense ennui. Everyday felt the same,” Sanchez said.

“The main reason I left the school is how isolated it is. There isn’t much of a town and the campus social life is frat dominated and lacks a variety of options,” Lizana said.

“I had so many more life experiences during high school that when I came to Bucknell I was shocked how isolated and boring it was,” Stupek said.

Schulman focused more on the characteristics of the student body itself. “The defining reason [I left] was I felt like I would have zero social life without Greek life and be an outcast,” Schulman said.

These are opinions from only four transfer students of the same class year. These perspectives do not apply across the entire student body, for if they did, the University would not have the exceptional average retention (and graduation) rate that it has. Nevertheless, the observable trends in the answers of each of these students should compel us to act. Aside from unchangeable factors such as the geographical location of the University, how can we address the underlying issues? How can we fix the isolating, socially constraining, and growth-stunting environment on campus that these students experienced and are addressing? How can we create spaces in which students can connect with others deeply and find a sense of home? It can be done, and the University is already trying.
A significant project that is currently in the works is “Bucknell-on-Purpose” by the CLTE grant team. Since January of 2020, this group has been working on addressing and finding solutions for the issues students are experiencing on campus. Through conducted surveys, focus groups, instrumental development, and student research, they have found trends that corroborate my findings in these interviews. These themes include: “over-commitment; apathy (of peers); social alienation; and lack of inclusivity.”

Overall, this team has found that a sense of purpose is a major factor pertaining to emotional wellbeing. They propose that “purpose and belonging/connection are intimately bound together.” Upon channeling these conclusions into the “core question: How can we create conditions for exploring purpose through community at Bucknell and beyond?,” this team created a “prototype answer.” For six weeks, small groups of students led by a student/staff pair will explore “real experiences around purpose and belonging” and will be provided “opportunities to apply practices and tools interpersonally in the flow of… real [life].” We will see what this project reaps in the next semester.

On a final note, in our email exchanges regarding this project, Reverend Kurt Nelson, the leader of Bucknell-on-Purpose, beautifully captured the importance of purpose in our daily lives.

“Purpose matters. Knowing what we’re here for, having a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and being able to talk about it, wrestle with it, adapt and change it is the reason why Bucknell exists, I hope. If we can encourage folks to be in community together around those big ideas, I think we can move the needle,” Nelson said.

Although I have interviewed four students who decided to leave the University, there are 3,724 students that I could have interviewed who wished to stay.

Though I did not receive this sort of perspective in these interviews, the CLTE team was able to identify positive themes across their research on University students’ experiences. Noted among these are: “friendship; “real world” application of learning; opportunity to help others; encouragement to self-reflect; investment in academic work; and mentorship.”

The University is doing a lot of things right. However, we can and will make it an even better place.

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