"Ask the Pros" Series: Building an Effective Strategy to Improve Retention: An Interview with Stacey Kostell of the University of Vermont

January 13, 2020
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elcome to our third and final installment of our three-part series devoted to helping readers successfully navigate today's higher ed student life cycle.

To conclude our three-part enrollment series, we sat down with college enrollment expert Stacey Kostell to learn how the University of Vermont (UVM) keeps its freshman retention rate amongst the highest in the nation.

HAI: Thank you for your time today, Stacey. Would you kindly give readers an overview of your professional background?

SK: Of course. I’ve spent my career working in the field of higher education—first as an assistant director at Purdue, then as the associate director of admissions at Arizona State University, and then as associate provost and director of admissions at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I’m currently at the University of Vermont in Burlington, where I’ve spent the past five years as the University’s chief enrollment strategist and retention officer. As the vice president for enrollment management at UVM, my purview is wide-ranging and includes oversight of undergraduate admissions and communications, financial aid, the registrar, international education, and retention. Thankfully I love what I do and am surrounded by great colleagues!

HAI: In 2018, UVM published a comprehensive student retention action plan. As a co-author of that plan (along with UVM’s coordinator of strategic retention), can you talk about why it is the responsibility of the VP of EM to improve retention?

SK: Like at many institutions, supporting student retention was/is considered everyone’s job at UVM. But that made coordination difficult. Having one person take responsibility for overseeing our efforts has made a big difference.

HAI: The coordinator of strategic retention is a relatively new position at UVM. Does this person report to you?

SK: Yes, she was originally hired to work on re-entry and retention. Previously, we didn’t have a centralized process for re-entry. As we have taken on more retention initiatives including implementing campus-wide software, we hired an Assistant Coordinator for Retention and Re-Entry. The Strategic Coordinator now works directly with our seven undergraduate colleges to help organize and implement our retention strategy.

HAI: Your title is vice president for enrollment management, and you noted earlier that you also serve as the University’s chief enrollment strategist and chief retention officer. As you talk with colleagues around the country, do you find that it is common for the VP of EM to have such a big role in improving retention?

SK: It’s definitely becoming more common. As people slowly come to understand what is happening with demographics in the country, they realize that they need to have overall UG enrollment targets and be creative about the ways to get there: including looking at re-entry, retention, transfers, etc.

HAI: Did you bring this responsibility to the role, or was that part of the job description when you took the position?

SK: Retention wasn’t yet part of the role when I started at UVM. While our president had retention as part of the strategic plan, he soon realized that having everyone in charge of improving it wasn’t working. That’s when I became the point person for retention. Now I work closely with the academic units. We also work with student affairs to blend student support with the academic mission and initiatives. Having one team coordinate the good work that many people were already doing has been helpful.

HAI: Understanding that the retention action plan was only implemented last year, do you get a sense that the interventions are already having a positive effect?

SK: Yes! Last year we realized our highest-ever 4-year graduation rate. There were/are a lot of things that we are doing to help students move toward graduation, but now these cross-University efforts are more coordinated.

One of the improvements we made was to how we handle degree audits. We are also now focusing not just on assessment, but on having everyone do assessments in the same way (consistency). We work with our office of institutional research to set goals and figure out how to measure success in advance.

For example, we asked all advisors to reach out to students who have a drop of 7/10ths of a point or more in their GPA. First, we had to figure out how the advisors should reach out, what action they want students to take (meet with advisor), and what strategies we could give students to be successful. Using this consistent process will enable us to measure whether students who met with their advisors were able to move their GPA up more than those who didn’t. We believe that advisors will work harder to get to the students who aren’t responding if they see evidence that doing so is effective.

HAI: What would you say is the most effective way to positively impact freshman retention?

SK: There is no magic bullet. Ultimately, it is about connections and engagements. We are always thinking about how we—as a campus—can help students make those contacts.

A lot of people make assumptions about what causes a student to leave. But until you have the data you can’t assume, otherwise it will be that much harder to move the needle. For example, because of our price point (a public school with a 75% non-resident student body), it was an easy “go-to” for us to assume that students were leaving because they couldn’t afford to stay. Another go-to assumption was mental health issues. Both of these factors can certainly affect retention, but there are many others to consider as well. For example, if a student thinks that their education is not worth the cost, they may leave to attend a university that costs less. That’s not a financial issue in the classic sense—or at least not one that should be categorized as “I can’t afford to stay.”

In order to get a clearer picture of the real reasons, we need more students to fill out a survey we created to learn more about why they are leaving and if they plan to return. But there are also students who don’t say they are leaving—they just don’t return. We are trying to figure out how to get to these students and ask them the questions. In fact, we are contemplating incentivizing survey completion.

Another reason to collect data is that it allows us to forecast future behavior. We’re just starting to do predictive modeling around this, and are excited about the insights that such projections will provide.

HAI: Tell readers a little more about how you’ve started using predictive modeling to help increase retention.

SK: Sure. Having a systematic way to use analytics and predictive modeling to identify at-risk students is key to improving retention. We just started using a system that tags students with a low, medium, or high level of support needed for success. To get started, we loaded in 10 years of cross-University data, though our longer-term goal is to be able to assess different predictors by college and by major.

HAI: Your retention plan outlines a number of action items, along with the department or person responsible for the item. It seems that supporting student retention is really a team effort at UVM. Has that always been the case?

SK: Absolutely. It won’t work if you don’t have the backing. The provost needs to be behind the efforts in order to get the academic units on board. I see my role as making it easy for faculty to help, e.g. guiding them as to who they should talk to, and what should they be talking about.

UVM has a new president and provost, and we are currently taking a break from all of the small retention meetings happening across campus. Instead, we now have one leadership meeting. This group will decide what the priorities are so that everyone can be working toward the same goal, as well as identify working groups to move things forward once priorities are set.

HAI: UVM’s first-year retention rates are among the highest in the country. Understanding that you aim to keep improving on this success, are there any best practices that you can pass on to enrollment professionals looking to do the same at their institutions?

SK: I know it may seem overly simple, but start with a basic plan! We just started by writing down all the reasons we thought students may be leaving. Then we worked to collect data and tie all the strategies together.

I also can’t overstate the importance of goal alignment and strong partnership between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. There has to be a combined effort to support students holistically. Finally, don’t oversimplify or assume you know the reasons why students leave. Everyone needs to accept responsibility for some part in that process.

HAI: Thanks so much, Stacey!

Be sure to check out our first "Ask the Pros" installment when we talked to John Buckley of Fordham University as well as our second installment when we sat down with Don Saleh of Franklin & Marshall.