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ETSU receives THEC funding for student retention project

JOHNSON CITY (June 27, 2016) – East Tennessee State University has received a grant from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission for a project aimed at improving retention rates among students striving to complete their sophomore year.

The THEC Institutional Outcome Improvement Fund grants are designed to assist institutions in addressing areas of deficiency as they strive to meet the goals of the outcomes-based funding formula set forth in the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010.

The CCTA rewards institutions for producing outcomes that further the educational attainment and productivity goals in the areas of student progression, degree production, efficiency and other important institutional functions. 

Since its implementation, many outcomes have grown significantly.  For instance, overall associate degrees awarded by community colleges have increased from 7,500 in 2009-10 to nearly 9,200 in 2014-15, and the overall university graduation rate has increased from 49 percent in 2009-10 to 54 percent in 2014-15.  Individual institutional performance, however, has varied, and the THEC Institutional Outcome Improvement Fund grants are awarded to institutions that develop action plans to increase outcomes where they have historically lagged.

“Freshman and first-year initiatives have historically received the ‘lion’s share’ of attention when it comes to research, interventions and programming in higher education,” said Dr. Stacy Cummings Onks, director of the University Advisement Center at ETSU, who submitted the grant proposal.  “But the struggles of students attempting to finish their sophomore year by successfully completing 60 credit hours have started to get more attention in recent years, and schools are starting to develop intervention strategies to help them.”

Onks said that in reviewing data on outcomes at ETSU over a five-year period, university officials saw that for three out of those five years, students were not as successful in crossing the 60-credit-hour threshold as they would have liked.

“Some of the struggles students typically face at that stage of the college experience include a lack of direction and uncertainty about their career destination and future plans,” Onks explained.  “They may have financial difficulties or work excessive hours outside of school.  Sometimes there are extenuating life factors, such as health concerns or family obligations, and some students struggle with the academic load in their courses.”

The THEC grant will help ETSU implement an intensive, comprehensive retention plan to support students who have completed between 30 and 60 credit hours.  This plan, which will be integrated campus-wide, will incorporate all components of academic and student life with a goal of increasing by 10 percent the number of students completing 60 credit hours and developing the enhanced academic, career-planning and life skills needed to finish their degrees.

The plan includes bringing the John N. Gardner Institute’s retention performance management services to campus.  This will help ETSU officials to identify and target retention deficiencies.

“JNGI and its director, Dr. John Gardner, are well-known and highly respected for their work with student success and implementing best practices,” Onks said.  “The key to this two-year strategy is that all campus stakeholders – students, staff and faculty – will be involved in one collective retention voice for ETSU.”

In addition, the grant will allow the creation of a new retention specialist position to support and coordinate the implementation of a retention success program, as well as provide professional development for current staff in the areas of retention and advisement strategies.

“One of the most important factors in our receiving this grant from THEC was the sustainability of the project,” Onks said. “ETSU’s Academic Council and key student support offices strongly support this effort.

“This grant proposal would not have been put forth for consideration, nor would it have been selected, if ETSU was not a supportive, close-knit community of dedicated individuals whose primary focus is in doing what is best for the students we serve.”

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