Southern works on freshman retention

It’s a typical weekday on Southern University’s campus and about a dozen students are in their Freshman Seminar class listening to an instructor talk about all the opportunities the school has to offer.

The students are there as part of Southern’s First Year Experience program, which is supposed to ease them through the transition from high school to college life.

But right outside the classroom’s double doors, three students are sharing war stories about how frustrating Southern can be. Astoria King, 20, a junior from Houston, feels like she’s getting the run-around as she tries to get her financial aid situation straightened out for what she estimates is the 10th time since school started in August.

“They never tell you, initially, what’s required, no matter where you go, they always tell you to speak to someone else, or someone’s at lunch or they’re out sick. There’s always something,” the electrical engineering student said. “There are just too many issues here. I don’t understand how this school is still running.”

King’s situation is exactly what Southern is trying to address in its most recent push to get better at retaining students.

Southern’s administrators will tell you that after years of moving from one budget crisis to another and running through a number of strategies to get students interested in the university, Southern has finally turned a corner.

The campus recently got a $6 million gift from the Legislature, and this fall saw its enrollment increase for the first time in nearly a decade.

Campus leaders were stunned when they saw freshman enrollment jump from 743 students in 2012 to 1,115 this fall.

Chancellor James Llorens said the real challenge is keeping those students. In years past, Southern could count on losing between 300 and 400 students every year.

So the new motto on campus is now “Retention, retention, retention.”

A lot of that retention responsibility falls on Jil Massucco, a coordinator with the First Year Experience initiative. She handles the academic side of the program.

The program hammers into students’ heads the resources available to them, from free tutoring at the recently opened Center for Student Success, to writing labs and visits from motivational speakers.

“A lot of our students have never been away from home. They need positive interactions with faculty; they need to establish relationships with advisers,” Massucco said.

“We have to strive to get them to maximize their potential. That’s the biggest push that we have going on right now.”

Ja’el Gordon, Southern’s coordinator for student organizations and campus involvement, handles the social side of the First Year Experience program.

Gordon said a big part of her mission is teaching personal development through community service.

Gordon’s students volunteer at the Scotlandville Fresh Food Pantry and help put on a Thanksgiving luncheon with the Big Buddy mentoring program.

“There is so much more to university life than what goes on in the classroom,” Gordon said. “We want our students to get involved.”

Llorens, the Baton Rouge campus leader, sums up the entire effort as a four-part process:

Identifying students who are struggling academically.

The university uses software to track students who are falling behind. Then, before calling in tutors or advisers to try and keep them academically eligible.

Counseling students on the academic decisions they make early in their college careers.

Students who drop classes as freshman often find themselves falling off track to graduating on time.

Providing access to financial aid. Southern is beefing up its efforts to identify scholarship funds, particularly for students who are performing well, but who still have significant financial needs.

Offering customer service. Southern earlier this year created the Office of Student Success specifically to help students with their unmet needs.

The last category is where Southern needs to do the most work according to King, the junior from Houston.

“As a kid, I looked up to this school, but not anymore,” she said. “Honestly, if this is not fixed, I’m not returning next semester.”

Brandon Dumas, Southern’s vice chancellor for Student Affairs, called King’s predicament inexcusable.

“Without knowing the particulars of her situation, she shouldn’t be having those problems.”

Dumas said a large number of administrative problems students have can be traced back to their failure to respond to university emails and phone calls during the summer break.

Southern has made an effort lately to send students “blast emails” followed up with phone calls advising students of registration procedures and financial aid requirements.

Dumas said Southern has done a good job getting of information to students, but is possibly coming up short in explaining to them the consequences of not handling the administrative functions, including registration and financial aid.

“As an administrator, I take responsibility for our shortcomings,” Dumas said. “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a way to go.”