35 Freshmen Missing: Why did they go?

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The university's retention goal is 85%. Photo by Annabelle Nicholas.

Thirty-five members of the class of 2025 did not return to the University of Dallas for the spring 2022 semester, leaving a noticeable absence from Bible studies and dorm rooms.

Emma DeAtely, a former freshman business major, is one of these 35. “I don’t really see myself doing four years of these Core, liberal arts classes when it’s not something I enjoy,” she said. 

Admissions Officer Carey Christenberry, popular among students for his habit of shouting “Cap drinks on me!” believes that the process of retention begins with admission. “[O]ne way for that to occur is to increase our prospects’ awareness of what UD is, and what it isn’t,” he said. 

Retention rate is a statistic used by the university to measure what percentage of the freshman class in the spring returns for the fall of sophomore year. “Our numbers are solid,” said President Jonathan Sanford. “We tend to be between 85 and 80% retention. And I think we’re at 83 this year.”  According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the national average is 73%.  

Retention rate in and of itself provides no information regarding why students leave or how to keep them. Dr. John Norris, the associate provost, sees UD’s small size as a peculiar strength when it comes to actively retaining students over multiple academic years.

An established care team provides individual guidance to struggling students. “They meet weekly,” said Norris, “and faculty can either send an email to the care group or they may find out on their own, keep a watch on students, intervene when intervention is necessary. Advisors often will send notes to academic success or associate deans and then that gets passed into this committee which works on supporting the students.”

Norris has been working with student retention and success since 2013. “Our goal,” he said, “is to do our best in helping admissions and enrollment bring in the best group of students that are going to not merely survive here but thrive here, and find ways for them to be able to afford doing so.”

Under his supervision, the Retention Committee was transformed into the more expansive Student Success Committee. The original goal set by the board of trustees, to achieve 85% underclassman retention from fall to fall, steadily grew to encompass much more. 

“In 2012 we hired a person for student success,” said Norris. “Up until then, no office or advisor for student success was a consistent part of our service to the student.” The university’s commitment to providing institutional support for student success has only grown since then.

Thanks to Career Development, Financial Aid, student counseling, chaplains, Campus Ministry, associate deans, data research and a dedicated care team, this goal of 85% retention has since been achieved twice. 

In his address to the faculty in Aug. 2021, President Jonathan Sanford outlined what he called a “profoundly laborious” but vital task: “Mentoring students in our labs, pouring countless hours into guiding our students in our studios and practice rooms, helping them to frame their theses, and guiding them in their practica. Our labor of love is labor intensive, and especially of late, fraught with inconveniences and challenges we never could have imagined.”

This labor of love is not limited to the professors and deans. “One of the reasons I’m always walking through the cafeteria and hallways is to try to keep up with my kids to see how things are going,” said Christenberry. 

But even with this individual level of care and support, losing 35 students is not an uncommon statistic. Neither is it a bad one. 

“We wouldn’t probably ever want 100% retention rate,” said Norris, “because our goal is not retention, our goal is student success … that student success is not merely academic success, it’s about the success of the student as a person.” 

Development of this intellectual, spiritual and career success is not only an ideal. Sanford made it a fiscal priority in his Strategic Plan: “Dallas endeavors to achieve permanent financial well-being in order to fulfill more perfectly the ends of its distinctive mission.”

For Olivia Graziano, another member of the 35, this distinctive mission was less than she had hoped for: “[UD’s] focus on independence can sometimes take away from the liberal arts commitment of the university. UD would benefit from giving the Core curriculum a more unified and rigid structure.”

Graziano may not have contributed to higher retention rates, but her insight is a no less valuable contribution. “[A] classical liberal arts education should serve as a foundation which a specialized discipline of study can then be built upon,” she said. “There should be an exclusive focus on the Core curriculum for underclassmen. I believe this may have kept me at UD and would strengthen the university’s commitment to liberal arts.” 

Norris’ envisions that a Dallas education plays a pastoral role for all students, both those who leave and those who stay: “You plant seeds,” he said. “Things happen to them. But that seed, that growth changes a person in ways they can never undo … the learning that they get from reading of the anger of Achilleus and what that does to him may come back to them when they’re a supervisor or when they have someone who’s really angry with them at work … the wisdom of Homer can help them find their way in the world.” 

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