More Hispanic students than ever are returning to the University of New Mexico for their sophomore year, taking a big step toward graduation. President Robert G. Frank announced the retention rate of Hispanic students going into the third semester hit 80.1 percent, the highest recorded in UNM history. The number of Hispanic students coming back even surpassed the overall retention rate of 79.1 percent in what is the largest total number of returning students ever.
“This is great news, a very positive move toward improving our graduation rates,” Frank said. “What historically has been a vulnerable student group is now one of our strongest. This milestone is reason to celebrate.”
More than 1,400 of the 2,745 students who moved into their sophomore year at UNM this semester are Hispanic. Once students make it past their freshman year of college, they are more than twice as likely to reach graduation, so this significant bump in retention is an encouraging trend.
The high retention rate highlights another distinction for the university in reaching the Hispanic population. UNM is one of only a handful of Carnegie designated universities with “very high research,” which are also Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) where a quarter of the undergraduate population is Hispanic.
“This success is a result of UNM's intentional and deliberate effort to enrich our students with a positive and engaged educational experience,” said Brian Colón, president of the UNM Alumni Association. “Students are our customers and this is a signal that we're moving the right direction. As an alumnus, I couldn't be more pleased.”
UNM has made a targeted effort to reduce barriers to student retention and to connect students with academic, student services and developmental support programs that promote success. Frank pointed to several new or enhanced strategies that UNM is using to encourage students to stay in school. All of them seem to have one thing in common: personal touch.
Corine Gonzales and her team of student workers in Enrollment Management began making phone calls to students in May right after registration opened.
“We’ve been giving them personal attention, helping address their issues, such as providing referrals to academic advisement or information on financial aid,” she said. Students reaching out to other students is an effective strategy because of the authentic communication that takes place and the ability to relate to common struggles.
Jennifer Gomez-Chavez, director of Student Academic Success, found going the extra mile to reach students when they are interested and available pays off. Her staff realized that students gathered for informal “registration parties” to try to sign up for classes as soon as they opened at midnight, so they joined in. They created “Operation: Registration” for freshmen in the Student Union Building on registration night from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
“We get all the advisors together, bring in the bursar’s office, offer free food and prizes,” Gomez-Chavez said. “Then we have a huge operation to help get students registered for the next semester. That caring culture, showing them that we want them here, really does contribute to retention.”
“It’s linking students in on their terms when they’re ready and it’s working,” Frank said.
Improvement in advisement is another key to keeping students in school. Important initiatives such as the LoboAchieve advising portal, Early Alerts and the degree mapping website: degrees.unm.edu, along with more one-on-one time with advisers helps students overcome obstacles that might otherwise cause them to opt out of coming back.
“Letting them know that you care and helping them cut down on some of the runaround they have to go through makes a big difference,” said Vanessa Harris, director, University Advisement. “Now students know exactly who their academic advisors are, who they need to go to and what other resources on campus they can connect with, such as CAPS for tutoring.”
Most of these tools and programs are the result of the Foundations of Excellence project designed to improve the experience of first-year students. The nearly three year effort involved more than 200 faculty members, staff and students who volunteered for the self-study of the first college year.
While Hispanic students are showing the most obvious gains so far, these initiatives are available to all UNM students, and there is more work to do in addressing achievement gaps. “We are having a lot of success improving student progress through strategies that emphasize each student as an individual, but we need to continue developing support that is effective for all populations,” Frank said.