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Commentary: Helping students over initial college hurdles

Now that the car is unloaded and the dorm room arranged, parents of first-year college students will no doubt depart campus feeling a little apprehensive as their son or daughter begins the next step in their academic career.

Now that the car is unloaded and the dorm room arranged, parents of first-year college students will no doubt depart campus feeling a little apprehensive as their son or daughter begins the next step in their academic career.

Will their child be up to the rigors of collegiate academic work? Are they prepared to handle living in a new environment? Most frightening, what happens if the answer to either is "no"?

Earlier this year, one university president did anything but alleviate those fears, as he reportedly likened struggling freshmen to bunnies that needed to be drowned and put out of their misery. The inapt simile rightfully drew lots of criticism across higher education and beyond.

Given the cost of a college degree and its ultimate payoff, a "sink or swim" attitude toward student success is simply indefensible. But the comments were driven by the desire to improve retention rates, which, with the right intentions and approach, is a noble cause, albeit one that also carries benefits for an institution.

On a national average, only three in five students will graduate college within six years, which leaves considerable room for improvement. Even institutions such as Bucknell University, which enjoys a 91 percent graduation rate, are working in earnest to retain more students. But that final 9 percent was proving especially difficult to crack.

Until now.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from "drowning the bunnies" are an increasing number of colleges and universities generating groundbreaking ways of ensuring students are given every opportunity to succeed. The keys to that success that for decades proved elusive are now being revealed thanks to the evolving knowledge and use of big data.

At Bucknell, we have worked for the past year alongside Deloitte Consulting to analyze information from the last five entering classes. That analysis has enabled us to see trends and pitfalls, and develop a model to address those challenges and facilitate first-year success, beginning with the class of 2020. For any college, the largest portion of a single class' attrition occurs before sophomore year. Solving the puzzle of first-year success goes a long way to ensure students stay and succeed.

Our model allows us to look at the incoming class through both the preenrollment window (what do we know about them before they arrive on campus) and how those data are further informed by academic and social experiences during the first semester. When students show signs of struggling academically and/or socially (e.g., poor attendance, low grades, lack of campus engagement, etc.), we can proactively intervene, increasing the chances they stay enrolled. While much of the responsibility still falls on students to make their own success, too often they may not realize they're in trouble until it is too late, or what resources are in place to help. Bucknell is introducing several new intervention programs this fall to address these issues.

First, our GenFirst initiative pairs every first-generation college student with a faculty or administrator mentor who also was a first-generation student. With regular meetings and mentorship, students will gain support from someone who can relate to their struggles.

An early signaling program will be required for all courses that are foundations for certain majors. Observing behavior and/or graded work, faculty will provide a green, yellow, or red signal to students at the conclusion of the fourth week of classes, helping prompt those in the yellow or red to seek out tutoring or simply dedicate more effort to that course. Ongoing analysis will allow us to judge if such interventions improve retention.

Finally, undecided majors will receive proactive communications to help them develop a plan for exploring their academic interests. The perfect academic-to- career path for them could be located just a classroom away, but with so many options, it can be hard to narrow them down.

As the data reveals more, we expect to develop even more initiatives to meet the needs of our students.

Parents, rest assured that we want what you want: for your students to thrive. It may seem like a chore to load up the car every August for the next four summers, but it sure beats not repeating the trip.

Bill Conley ( is vice president for enrollment management and Param Bedi ( is vice president for library and information technology at Bucknell University.