Toward the middle of his freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Bryan Howard thought the university might not be the right place for him.
As a driven English and theater major, Howard, now a junior, felt UNL wasn’t challenging him enough. Then he decided to carve his own path.
Many freshmen such as Howard don’t feel the university is the perfect fit for them, and some end up leaving the school.
In fall 2012, UNL had a first-year retention rate of 83.6 percent. This rate tracks the portion of freshmen who return to the university after completing their first year. UNL’s retention rate is the lowest in the Big Ten, according to U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings.
According to data from UNL Institutional Research and Planning, first-year retention rates have remained around 83 to 84 percent for the last 10 years.
Second- and third-year retention rates are even lower: For those entering the university in 2010, second-year retention was 75.5 percent and third-year retention was 72.7 percent.
But retention rates can be deceiving, said Amy Goodburn, associate vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at UNL, because they don’t account for students who take a semester or two off and return later. She said UNL’s retention rates are likely lowest among the Big Ten because the university’s admission standards are broader than those of the other schools.
There are a variety of reasons why students leave the university, Goodburn said. Slightly more out-of-state students than in-state students leave the university, perhaps because of the difference in tuition costs. Tuition for Nebraska residents, not including room and board, was about $8,060 for the 2013-2014 school year, while tuition for non-residents was about $21,388.
Avery Malakowsky, a sophomore business management major at Minnesota State University, Mankato, attended UNL for his freshman year but then decided to switch to a school closer to his home in central Minnesota.
“There was quite a bit of a price difference between the in-state tuition here and at UNL,” Malakowsky said.
Malakowsky now lives at home and commutes a half-hour to classes at Minnesota State on weekdays.
“It’s the same degree at a different place for quite a bit less,” Malakowsky said.
Had he the opportunity to stay and pursue a business management degree at UNL, he would have done so, but the funding just wasn’t there.
“(UNL) would have had to do a lot to match the price I pay now,” Malakowsky said.
Goodburn said some out-of-state students return home simply because they are homesick.
One of UNL’s goals is to increase retention rates, but sometimes there’s nothing the university can do.
“We know UNL is not going to be the perfect fit for everyone,” Goodburn said.
According to IRP, students are more likely to leave some majors at UNL than others. Exploratory and Pre-Professional Advising, which includes undecided, pre-law and pre-health majors, has the highest rate of attrition after the first year at 22.5 percent. Goodburn said this is partly because UNL doesn’t have a nursing program.
The UNL college with the lowest rate of attrition after freshman year is the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, with only an 11.2 percent loss.
Howard, who wasn’t sure he wanted to attend UNL, remains in the Hixson-Lied college.
The New Jersey native only came to visit the school because his father is an alumnus, but he ended up having a positive experience.
“It really boiled down to the faculty,” Howard said.
He said he traveled to other East Coast schools to audition for their drama programs, but he couldn’t replicate the personal connection he made at UNL.
“I like having professors that care about me and my future as much as I do,” he said.
However, Howard hit a roadblock partway through his freshman year when he realized he wasn’t happy with his major and was considering transferring schools.
“I was taking a lot of performance classes and performing a lot,” he said, ”but it wasn’t the right kind of challenge.”
Howard then spent his entire sophomore year creating an individualized major that would perfectly suit his interests of theater, human behavior and dramaturgical analysis.
“I had notebooks full of the classes,” he said.
After his carefully planned proposal for an individualized program of study was accepted, his new major, theater arts and human behavior, was born. Howard is currently the only student in the major (as it began this school year), but he encourages others to create their own paths at the university.
“It wasn’t the university’s job to challenge me,” Howard said. “And if you want something, you can definitely make it happen.”
Howard didn’t have problems with UNL’s academics, but some students do. Those struggles are another reason for lack of retention.
Goodburn said the university keeps students on track through a variety of methods, including the First Year & Transition Experience Programs.
Heather Ockenfels, director of the First Year & Transition Experience Programs at UNL, said freshman students often struggle with study and time management habits.
“They learn that what they did in high school doesn’t work in college,” Ockenfels said.
The infant program pays special attention to those students who are on academic probation, as does the new Academic Probation Program that requires students to attend intake sessions and meet with recovery coaches.
Goodburn said the university also wants to put more of a focus on being welcoming to all cultures on campus.
Graduation rates are slightly higher for white students than they are for minority students, Goodburn said.
But in Goodburn’s book, increased retention rates mean more than just a number.
“We want all students to be able to find a home here,” she said.