Student retention holds steady despite pandemic

When COVID-19 sent Trevecca students and faculty scrambling to figure out online learning last spring, Megan McGhee, the director of new student programs, said student development went into crisis mode.

“In the spring, I think it was all so new that, to a certain extent, we were all just trying to survive,” she said.

The crisis in question? Convincing students to return to Trevecca in the fall.

Jeff Swink, the coordinator of retention and assessment, defines this problem as “trying to make sure that every student is retained at the university each semester.”

Across the United States, the average student retention rate at four-year institutions is 81 percent. Trevecca’s average retention rate in the past has been 87 percent.

This year, largely because of the pandemic, the retention rate coming into the fall semester was 86 percent. Swink said he was expecting a drop, but it was not as bad as he anticipated.

To compare, Swink said from the fall to the spring of the 2019-2020 school year, 89 percent of freshmen were retained at Trevecca. This year, between the fall and spring semesters of 2020 and 2021, there was a 92 percent retention rate among freshmen.

“That goes up and down, one year its 93 [percent] and the next it might be at 94 [percent], it just depends on the class,” said Swink. “But still, we did not drop as much as we thought we were going to drop.”

Before the pandemic, Swink would utilize a variety of resources to connect with students and see how they are doing to keep as many as possible on campus.

Spring 2021 LINK group. Photo by Bailee Ford.

Now, Swink said he relies on catchy email subject lines and virtual Zoom meetings to check in on those who might be struggling. His most valuable resource on campus for knowing what freshmen need, however, are the LINK group peer mentors.

“Mentors and peer mentors are my main line of contact for helping me retain [freshmen] students,” said Swink.

Long breaks from school, like the most recent winter break, can also have a significant impact on student retention. McGhee said these breaks and their effects can be both positive and challenging.

“Part of the goodness of a long break is that it provides students with additional rest after a very hectic semester in the midst of a pandemic,” McGhee said. “And the challenge with a long break is that students might find that they like being home…or it’s just more cost effective [to go online].”

Swink also said there are many factors that contribute to a student’s decision to participate in online learning, or to not return to school at all.

Some of the factors leading Trevecca students to stay home or possibly take a semester off of school, he said, are related to family and the student’s need to care for them, as well as health and wellness situations.

“We want them at Trevecca,” said Swink. “[But we also want to] encourage them, ‘Good luck, we are here for you when you come back.’”

Madi Bowers, a junior social work major, decided to come to Trevecca as a residential student in the fall, but switched to taking online classes from her dad’s home in Pensacola, Florida for the spring semester.

“I feel like a lot of people have COVID anxiety, and I definitely am one of those people,” Bowers said. “I tried to keep my [circle] small, but my anxiety around COVID got so bad four or five weeks into the [fall] semester.”

For financial and mental health reasons, Bowers said it made more sense for her to learn from home, so she was glad the university offered an easy transition to remote learning.

“Having Zoom and things like that does make it feel like you’re in class,” said Bowers.

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