In the bid to increase its six-year graduation rate to 80 percent by 2020, the University of Colorado also plans to increase its first-year retention rates, or the number of students who return after their freshman year.

The current first-year retention rate is 85 percent, and has ranged from 82 to 85 percent since 1990, according to statistics by CU's Office of Budget, Planning and Analysis.

"We're hoping that our graduation rate by 2020 is 80 percent, so that's going to require that we have a retention rate up in the 90s," said Bob Boswell, CU's vice-chancellor for diversity, equity and community engagement.

While getting that number up by five percentage points or more will be a challenge, Boswell and other CU leaders say they're rolling out some new programs to help incoming students be more successful in their first year on campus. That is often the deciding factor between them staying at or leaving the university.

CU Chancellor Phil DiStefano announced last fall that the campus has set a goal of increasing its six-year graduation rate from 68 percent to 80 percent by the year 2020. But DiStefano or other CU officials had never mentioned how the campus plans to achieve that goal. Retaining first-year students is one way to make that happen, said Michael Grant, CU associate vice-chancellor for undergraduate education.

"The principal reason (retention) numbers are important is if you don't make it from the first to the second year, your'e not going to make it to graduation, which is our principle mission, graduating students," Grant said.

Grant said the largest single-year attrition, or students who don't return, is between the first and second year. Grant said it's during a student's first year that he or she will determine whether or not CU is a good fit, academically, socially, financially and geographically.

Students who transfer or graduate from other institutions are not counted in CU graduation statistics, but they do detract from CU's retention rate.

Grant said the campus is working to improve or implement several programs that help students who start their college career at CU return for a second year and graduate in six years.

"One is we're trying to make all the campus faculty and staff aware of the importance of our retention success and graduation rates to the institution as a whole," he said.

ALEKS is a relatively new program that began two years ago. Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces is a web-based software that evaluates a student's math skills before they start at CU.

The software puts out results that can advise students on which math-based courses they should enroll in as freshmen. Grant said one of the main reasons students aren't successful their first year on campus is because they've overestimated their own abilities in math, and end up getting poor grades in classes like chemistry, physics and economics.

When a student uses the web-based software to select classes that best match their mathematic abilities, Grant said, they're more likely to succeed in their first year and return to CU the following fall.

Grant said CU is also developing a new advising model that instead of being school- or college-specific will allow students to hear advice from a campuswide perspective.

As CU's advising system functions now, students work with advisers in a specific school. An engineering freshman is advised by someone in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Because of that specificity in advising, students who transfer from one college to another say they aren't given adequate information or advice when they make the switch

A new centralized advising system, which CU hopes to roll out in the coming years, will make it so that any adviser at any time can see any students' records, no matter which school the student is in.

This spring, CU also plans to test evening advising hours in Norlin Library, which Grant said he hopes fits better with students' schedules than the traditional 8-to-5 advising hours.

Boswell pointed to the CU-LEAD Alliance programs, or "academic neighborhoods" that promote student success among students of color and first-generation students.

"They're in each school and college and the intent is to provide students with additional academic support," Boswell said. "(These programs) are critical to retention because of the communities that they build."

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