This past week I had the chance to visit Mars Hill College, where I spent the first three semesters of my college career. It was a great trip--I reconnected with old friends, saw the Mars Hill Men's soccer team beat a conference rival, drove the Blue Ridge Parkway at the peak of the fall colors, and ate at The Waffle House (where even the worst food somehow tastes amazingly good).
In between reminiscing with old friends and eating far too much southern fare, I thought a bit about my work and what I might learn during my visit. Mars Hill College is an interesting case study in retention because, on paper, one would expect them to have an outstanding retention rate. Classes are small (12:1 student to faculty ratio), virtually all freshmen live on campus, there is a big push for students to connect with faculty and participate in meaningful research projects with them, and it is rare to find a student that is not involved in some sort of campus organization (e.g. 35% of the students on campus are members of one of the NCAA Division II athletic teams). What's more, campus is a bit like Cheers in that "everyone knows your name" (This was driven home to me powerfully in the hour that I spent with the Dean of Students and his assistant--they literally knew every student they passed on campus or that came into their office and called them by name). As far as I could tell, Mars Hill is doing a lot of the right things that should translate into a campus where students want to stay and graduate from.
The strange part of this story (and the discouraging part for Mars Hill's administration) is that their retention rate is pretty abysmal--about 55% in an average year. So, that left me wondering why that is and what a school like Mars Hill could do to hold on to students. What is the essence of retention?