Higher Learning Commission

Improving Students' Persistence and Completion at Coe College

Coe College

Overview of the Quality Initiative

1. Provide a brief description of the Quality Initiative. Explain whether the initiative will begin and be completed during the Quality Initiative period or if it is part of work already in progress or will achieve a key milestone in the work of a longer initiative.

Coe College’s proposed Quality Initiative will represent the next step in a roughly ten-year focus on retention. The Initiative described in this proposal began in intentional ways with an intentional structure in January 2016. The “modern” history of Coe’s retention efforts is described below.

The college has studied the retention issue in various iterations over the past 20 years, but a more concerted effort began in 2009 with the creation of a Retention Task Force, led by the Associate Dean of the Faculty. The Task Force released a white paper in August 2010, with several recommendations based on its findings by reviewing patterns as well as best practices:

  1. Gather and Analyze Information
    • Continue the Retention Task Force
    • Enhance monitoring of student attendance and performance with planned follow-up
    • Gather information on best practices
  2. Systematize collection and analysis of data related to retention
  3. Increase and improve “points of attachment” for first-year students
    • Extend College Adjustment Peer (CAP) program throughout the entire fall term, and extend role of CAPs throughout the students’ first year
    • Identify faculty to work with “undecided” first-year students
    • Improve faculty advising, logistically and structurally
  4. Articulate the College’s Identity

Beginning in the fall of 2010, the new Associate Dean formed a data team with a focus on addressing the first two recommendations. This group identified ten data-based retention questions (see Question 9: Questions), and worked over the next year to identify and consolidate sources of data to answer the questions.

During the 2012-13 academic year, the college conducted a successful search to replace its long-serving President, Dr. James Phifer. As might be expected, few initiatives were undertaken during this transition year. For example, although the college’s 2010-2015 Strategic Plan included improvement of retention as one of nine objectives, few resources were dedicated to achieving this goal as the college awaited the hiring of a president.

Shortly after his arrival at Coe College in on July 1, 2013, the new president, Dr. Dave McInally, engaged the college’s Long Range Planning Council in a series of discussions about the priorities for the college during the last year of the 2010-2014 strategic plan. During these discussions, the decision was made to use David Kalsbeek’s theoretical framework1 as an organizing tool for addressing the college’s retention concerns. According to Kalsbeek, four institutional factors need to be considered as they affect institutional assumptions about retention:

Profile: Graduation rates are institutional attributes as much as they are institutional accomplishments and are largely a function of institutional and student profile.

Progress: Insofar as degree completion is the outcome of successfully meeting the academic requirements of a curriculum, academic progress is at the core of retention strategy.

Process: Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, improving broad processes that affect the greatest number of students is the optimal institutional focus for retention strategy.

Promise: Focusing on those student outcomes that are integrally a part of the institution’s core purposes and brand promises brings reciprocal benefits to the institution as much as to the students.)

In the fall of 2013, President McInally identified the improvement of student retention as one of four initiatives in the college’s “anchor leg” strategic plan. This anchor leg plan was derived from the initiatives of the 2010-2014 plan to focus the college as the new strategic plan for 2016-2021 was being developed, and three broad goals were introduced:

  1. Develop a marketing and visibility plan that includes internal marketing initiatives
  2. Review and revise broad processes that influence academic progress for the student body as a whole
  3. Identify barriers to academic progress that affect a significant percentage of the first-year class and design systems to lower them

These three broad goals formed the framework for retention-related efforts over the next two years, with the expectation that the work would continue until successful. Also at this time, Marie Baehr, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty, was invited to serve as a mentor for HLC’s Persistence and Completion Academy schools, giving her and Coe access to much literature on best practice and giving Dean Baehr access to examples from the participating schools on effective strategies.

When the first to second year retention rate fell to 78% for the 2013-2014 academic year, President McInally issued a “call to arms” to the college community, which resulted in the appointment of a faculty member to Special Assistant to the President for Retention, whose position officially began in January 2015 and will continue until at least December 2016. The intent of this proposed Quality Initiative is to provide a sustained structure for the retention-related initiatives that will be conceived and implemented over the next three years through the continued work started with the anchor leg strategic plan and continuing with the newly adopted 2016-2021 strategic plan. Some of these initiatives have been identified and are well underway; while others will be generated as the college community continues to focus its attention on the issue, refines its data accuracy and retrieval systems, and as the Special Assistant to the President on Retention further defines needs in this area. It is Coe’s intention to view the two tables of initiatives included in this proposal as fluid documents, to be expanded and updated as appropriate.

To aid in this endeavor, beginning in July 2016, Dean Baehr will transition to a new role as Special Assistant to the President, where she will work on projects that will be useful to Coe and for which she has an expertise. Some of the projects include working with the new Provost to get ready for Coe’s tenth year HLC visit in 2018-2019 and working with the Special Assistant to the President for Retention and others to use existing data on campus to unveil possible problems in persistence of students and inform the College of possible solutions.

Sufficiency of the Initiative's Scope and Significance

2. Explain why the proposed initiative is relevant and significant for the institution.

Like many small colleges, Coe College has become increasingly focused on improving student persistence in recent years. Coe’s first-to-second year retention rate has ranged a few percentage points around 80% for the past 20 years, with a five-year rolling average consistently around 80%. While this retention rate is comparable to that of other private liberal arts colleges nationwide,2 several recent developments have heightened Coe’s interest in increasing this rate. First, in the fall of 2013 the college reconstructed its national comparison group (see Question 9: Comparison Schools) to better understand its challenges and strengths relative to colleges that are more similar to Coe than many of the colleges in its academic consortium, the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. Once the group of 33 colleges was constructed, it became clear that Coe’s retention rate did not compare favorably with what Coe considers its peer colleges. Also, Coe’s retention rate has lagged that of other colleges it perceives to be comparable in quality. Of the 119 schools ranked higher than Coe in the 2015 U.S. News report, only five had retention rates equal to or lower than Coe’s 78%.

Second, a key strategic goal of the college is to grow enrollment to 1500 students over the next several years. Clearly, improved retention will be key to attaining this goal.

Finally, first-to-second year retention for three of the past four years has dipped below 80%, with the expected financial impact that comes with lower-than-expected enrollment.

3. Explain the intended impact of the initiative on the institution and its academic quality.

By growing the student population of the college by over 100 students in the next five years, in part accomplished by improved persistence, the college will have funds available to support improvement, many of which are identified in Coe’s mission statement, in areas that it believes will increase Coe’s perceived value by prospective students. Other programs will be strengthened by increased faculty and staff hires. When improved persistence is seen as an outcome that is achieved by implementing good practices that support student learning (see tables ), this initiative will help the college focus on ways to increase students’ perceptions of the value of the education they are receiving as well as to increase the actual value they do receive.

Clarity of the Initiative's Purpose

4. Describe the purposes and goals for the initiative.

As described in Question 1, the overall goal of this initiative is to increase student persistence and degree completion at Coe College. The Long Range Planning Council and the President of the College chose David Kalsbeek’s 4 Ps theoretical framework to address this issue, and the proposed initiative specifically focuses on the Process- and Progress-related goals. Goals related to Promise are also being addressed by the college, but are not specified in this proposal since Promise is more focused on recruitment, and Coe perceives Profile to be an outcome of the other three.

5. Describe how the institution will evaluate progress, make adjustments, and determine what has been accomplished.

The college will collect evidence from a variety of sources of the effects the initiatives are having on student satisfaction and persistence. These include:

  • Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI) and College Student Inventory (CSI), with each given every other year (alternating), and with the ability to compare the results of the SSI to those from 2014 and 2016 when given at Coe
  • First Year Seminar instructors who also serve as advisors for the student’s first year.
  • Focus groups of students
  • Exit surveys of students
  • Graduation surveys of students
  • Responses of faculty and of students to questions on various surveys as needed and developed

The key metric, however, will be student persistence from the first fall term to the second fall term.

Evidence of Commitment to and Capacity for Accomplishing the Initiative

6. Describe the level of support for the initiative by internal or external stakeholders.

  • Board of Trustees vote of support to have a priority to increase persistence at February 2015 meeting
  • Appointment of Special Assistant to the President for Retention in fall 2014, beginning work in January 2015
  • Budgeted funds to support more jobs on campus for students, through the academic year and in the summer
  • Creation of Student Learning Commons, which opened in Fall 2015
  • Appointment of Data group, which continues to meet and think of ways to systematize the college’s data
  • Appointment of Retention Advisory group, which continues in expanded form to advise the work of the Special Assistant to the President for Retention
  • Creation of the Special Assistant to the President position (2016), whose work in part will be to clean up needed data, consult with campus stakeholders, and assess each Initiative’s impact
  • Creation of a Retention Coordination group (to start in Fall 2016), which will pull members from Student Development, Academic Affairs, Learning Commons, and Physical Plant to determine improvements that cross areas of the college

7. Identify the groups and individuals that will lead or be directly involved in implementing the initiative.

  • Dr. Mario Affatigato, Special Assistant to the President for Retention
  • Dr. Marie Baehr, Special Assistant to the President
  • Executive Committee of the Faculty (shared governance policy creating committee)
  • Assessment Committee (faculty committee with administrative representation)
  • Finance and Facilities Committee (shared governance budget creating committee)
  • Senior Staff of the College

8. List the human, financial, technological and other resources that the institution has committed to this initiative.

Sabbatical leave for Dr. Terry McNabb to write Quality Initiative proposal, Spring 2016

  • Appointment of Dr. Mario’s Affatigato to Special Assistant to the President for Retention (1/3 full time position)
  • Appointment of Dr. Marie Baehr as Special Assistant to the President
  • Provision of additional work study funding
  • Provision of funding for summer housing for students who want to work locally in the summer
  • Establishment of additional financial aid for returning students
  • Creation and continued support of Learning Commons
  • Funding for Human Resources Workshops for staff to work towards complete student centeredness

Appropriateness of the Timeline for the Initiative

9. Describe the primary activities of the initiative and timeline for implementing them.

The two tables below capture the planned initiatives, work to date, and planned work over at least the next year. As the college works on this initiative, the table will be used to capture activities and to know what to assess.

Table 1: Progress Goal—To increase the likelihood of students' initial academic success and continued academic progress toward their degree

Initiative Past Activities/ Current Status 2015–2016 Activities 2016–2017 Activities 2017–2018 Activities
Create mechanisms for early identification of struggling students, broadly defined, and clearer pathways to intervention  

Early alert online system activated in September, 2015. Plans to train faculty and staff, and determine pathways for intervention

Summer 2015 Bridge program conducted for 35 “at risk” students

Students of Concern (SOC) Case management chart created

Continuation of established processes, refining data collection and analysis methods and education of the College community of the processes in place

Purchase of software to track and document case management work

Intervention with students whose College GPA is lower than the students’ or the College’s expectations

Identify courses that yield a higher than expected proportion of D, F and W grades, and implement redesigns and/or supplemental supports

Supplemental Instruction (SI) available for selected Biology courses.

Writing Center support for all courses.

Peer tutoring available to all students in most academic areas.

TRIO grant support for first generation, low income, and learning disabled students.

Departmental mentoring, help rooms, tutors’ funding for high DFWI courses

Grant submission to support persistence in STEM disciplines

Comprehensive evaluation of SI program and mentoring.

Exploration of other ways to offer SI.

Creation of student positions to provide support for learning in quantitative and technological areas.

Create “Plan B” advising for students who are unlikely to succeed with their original academic plans This has typically been done through the traditional advising process. Programs with higher “failure” rates consult with departments that can support the students. Development of 2016-2021 Strategic Plan, which includes Center for Health Professions that will support such advising in the health fields.

Development of the Center for Health Professions to support advising, mentoring, and shadowing opportunities.

Creation of advisor-at-large position to support students in their quest for options

Provide pre-enrollment summer “bridge” courses for students who lack confidence and or preparation in key areas Summer of 2015 courses offered to 35 students Expansion of Summer 2015 program and implement ion of improvements    
Explore ways to provide opportunities for students to earn credits needed for timely graduation  

Approved policy changes that allow all May terms to count toward graduation and addition of on-campus May terms courses to meet the new need.

Policy changes to make it easier for partial credit courses to count toward graduation3

  Consider credentialing for specific skills
Create mechanisms for students, faculty and advisors to better map and manage student progress toward degree

On-line graduation audit made available Fall 2014.

4-year planning folder created for FYS Fall 2014

Development of advising charts and checklists to make it easier to advise for any major.

Evaluation of the effectiveness of advising supports through faculty and student feedback.

Expansion of the Learning Commons to support student advising

Coordinate Advising responsibilities and activities   Discussion of ways to better coordinate the work  of the Learning Commons, Academic Achievement Program (AAP), and faculty advising responsibilities Creation of a faculty role to support faculty development in advising.  
Create summer programs/opportunities that address financial and academic roadblocks Low cost housing made available to students with local jobs to stay on campus in summer Pilot program for students interested in majoring in economics to develop quantitative skills. Investigation of ways to offer study skills courses in the summer  
Find ways to provide students with additional financial support during the academic year     Exploration of ways to further reconfigure work study positions  


Table 2: Process Goals—To simplify and streamline college processes related to students' enrollment

Initiative Past Activities/ Current Status 2015–2016 Activities 2016–2017 Activities 2017–2018 Activities
Centralize the physical location of services related to students’ academic success  

Learning Commons opens- August, 2015

Evaluation of activities and processes expected of first-year students

Centralize the physical location of student support offices


Move of Business and Financial Aid Offices to common space in Voorhees Hall in summer of 2015

Further integration of Financial Aid and the Business Office

Create mechanisms to facilitate responsiveness of Physical Plant   “School Dude” software activated October 1

Evaluation of effectiveness, student satisfaction, and ease of use pertaining to PPlant satisfaction Creation of new position at the College to oversee physical plant, food service, and athletics

Integrate admission and advising processes for transfer students   Streamline of transcript analysis through membership in College Search  Development of processes for seamless transfer analysis and support by Director of First-year Experience, Registrar, and Dean of Admission  
Improve communication flow among students’ support systems, including coaches, work supervisors, faculty club sponsors and advisors  

Activation of Early Alert online system in September, 2015. Use of Jenzabar’s Parent Portal to give access to multiple supporters.

Evaluation of effectiveness of Early Alert system.

Purchase of software to support case management efforts

Expansion of the role that coaches plan in supporting students academically Creation of Engagement Peer Counselor positions to engage students in 1-1 conversations about their interests during orientation

Improve front-line staff ability to answer student questions outside of their area


Cross-training of LC consultants

Summer training workshops for front-line staff in summers Open houses sponsored by HR in summers

Continuation of workshops for front-end staff.

Review and analysis of satisfaction surveys for improvement.

Simplify scholarship renewal process New system put into place in summer, 2015 Communication with advisors about changes in requirements    
Clarify roles relate to support for students with disabilities Disabilities Coordinator named in Summer 2015 ADA coordinator-led discussions and workshops for faculty and staff. Creation of Universal Design team by President  
Streamline billing process     Review the current process to discover efficiencies  
Review registration process and timing for first year students     Review possibility of summer registration  



1 Kalsbeek, D. H. (Ed.), Reframing Retention Strategy for Institutional Improvement. New Directions for Higher Education, 161 (Spring 2013).

2 2015.  National collegiate retention and persistence to degree rates.  Retrieved from American College Testing website: http://www.act.org/content/act/en/research/college-student-retention-graduation-rates-2000-2015.html

3 Coe’s course credit equals 4 semester hours, so partial credits would equate to 1, 2, or 3 semester hours.


Institution Contact

Paula O'Loughlin, Provost and Dean of the Faculty

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NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC highly recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but none represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

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