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October 12, 1995

As part of retention efforts, Pitt surveys undergraduate students

As part of the administration's stepped-up effort to keep students from leaving the University before they graduate, Pitt last week mailed surveys to nearly 2,100 current undergraduates seeking their opinions on a wide variety of student life issues.

"Essentially, we're trying to identify matters that are of concern to our students," said Jack Daniel, vice provost for Academic Affairs. "Then, once we've verified the accuracy of those concerns and criticisms, the University will use the survey results to help develop a plan of action to improve our student retention." Such a plan should be pro-active and alert the administration to problems before students leave Pitt, Daniel said.

The survey asks students to evaluate the quality of instruction, academic advising, registration, campus security and other aspects of University life.

The 2,063 survey recipients were randomly selected from among Pittsburgh campus students living on- and off-campus; 620 of the recipients are sophomores.

Second-year students should be a good barometer of Pitt's retention effort, Daniel said, because they will be at the University longer than any other students who have cleared the academic, financial and personal hurdles of freshman year.

Also over-represented in the survey, based on their numbers within the overall Pitt student body, are African-American students (360 of the 2,063 recipients) and the College of General Studies (700 recipients), which enrolls a large percentage of older and part-time students. Pitt administrators are eager for retention data on both groups, Daniel said.

There is some overlap among the targeted groups, he noted. Some of the CGS students may be African American, for example, and some of the African American students may be sophomores.

The survey was designed by James Ritchie, director of Institutional Research, and the Enrollment Management Committee (EMC) formed this year by Provost James Maher.

Since becoming provost in June 1994, Maher has made student retention one of his highest priorities. Last fall, Pitt's administration was caught off guard by an unusually large number of non-returning students; the resulting tuition shortfall created a budget crisis that the administration resolved by freezing hiring and purchasing (both freezes were lifted July 1) and by ruling out salary raises for faculty and staff in 1995, among other cost-cutting moves. EMC is charged with studying Pitt's undergraduate recruitment, retention and graduation and recommending improvements in those areas. In addition to helping to design last week's continuing student survey, EMC and its subcommittees are recommending that other surveys be done, including a followup to last spring's survey of undergraduates who withdrew or dropped out after the fall 1994 term despite being in good academic standing. The No. 1 reason the 278 respondents cited for leaving Pitt was "inability to afford tuition and fees." (See the Sept. 14 University Times.) Provost Maher said last spring's survey probably was not very revealing because of the relatively small number of respondents. Maher favors doing a more comprehensive survey of non-returning students this year.

An EMC subcommittee chaired by Robert Pack, vice provost for Academic Planning and Resources Management, recommends regular surveys of withdrawing/non-returning students in Pittsburgh as well as at the four regional campuses.

Pack's subcommittee also recommends that Pitt conduct a survey of first-year students enrolled in Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Business Administration and the School of Engineering, and then follow the students through the ensuing five years. "The goal is to determine changes in student attitudes from application through graduation and to assess [students'] satisfaction with the University during the period of their enrollment," the subcommittee wrote.

But EMC is not survey-happy, according to Vice Provost Daniel. In a Sept. 18 memorandum to Maher, Daniel wrote that EMC recognizes "the pivotal role of valid and reliable information for enrollment management purposes" but also recommends making better use of existing information and taking "decisive actions that will impact positively on student retention as opposed to conducting ongoing 'studies' without concomitant action." — Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 28 Issue 4

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