GRAND FORKS — University of North Dakota calls it the “year of retention.”

Over the past decade the school’s retention rate has been around 80%, a few percentage points higher than the average rate for the university system, according to data from the North Dakota University System.

UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo said student retention is a key part of the university’s strategic plan and remains a priority for the school. But, retention fell slightly this year, alongside enrollment. That means the freshmen who entered UND last fall were less likely to return as sophomores than were the freshmen who entered two years ago.

The university is working on strategies related to academic advising and making it easier for students to transfer to the university.

Academically, the university has implemented a program called Starfish, which gives faculty an “early alert” system to communicate to students and advisers when there are attendance or other difficulties.

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The university also has added a “degree planner” for students to help them better organize what classes they need to take for their major. DiLorenzo said the planner is mobile-friendly to help reach students where they are.

By working on retention rates, DiLorenzo said it allows the university to help prepare the students for not only their first job, but their fourth or fifth job.

Programs, such as Starfish and the degree planner, are not meant to make things easier for the students but should make their college experience a little easier to figure out, DiLorenzo said.

“I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: We’re not trying to make things easier academically. We’re trying to make them easier bureaucratically,” DiLorenzo said.

Retention rates are also an important topic across the region for universities.

Chancellor Mark Hagerott said retention has been a priority for all of the campuses in the university system and noted each has its own way of addressing retention as the needs of a student in Williston are different from a student at North Dakota State University.

Dickinson State University has spent resources to raise its retention rate as well. In 2009, retention rates barely eclipsed 50%, with about 55% of students staying for their second year of school. In 2016, that number dropped to 54%, but the retention rates have increased considerably in the past two years. In 2017, the rates went up to 64%. The most recent data, for 2018, shows a 71% retention rate.

Outgoing Dickinson State University President Thomas Mitzel said DSU’s Carmen Wilson, former vice president for academic affairs at the university, was tasked with raising the school’s retention rates. She and other faculty and staff put in place multiple areas of outreach for students.

“Intrusive” advising encourages faculty and staff to intervene when a student is struggling. Rather than waiting for the student to come to the adviser or faculty member, one of those individuals can reach out to the student directly. That can come through a number of avenues, including text messages and mobile apps, rather than emails.

“What we tried to do with these outreach programs was make students feel ... that we care and to make them feel more part of the community,” Mitzel said.

The school has a retention committee to assess and tweak any programs that may not be delivering.

“What it comes down to is making sure the students understand they're not here alone, they're not isolated,” he said. “Everybody struggles at something during their undergraduate tenure. Students always think, if they're left alone, they think that they're the only ones who have ever had that issue. So we try to make sure that they understand you're not the only one who's ever gone through this issue and we're here to help you get through.”

Retention and student outreach also has been a focus for the University of Minnesota Crookston.

UMC has a Student Success Center built on helping students grow in the classroom and finding ways to help students stay with the university. The school also has worked to address the needs of first-generation students, earning national recognition for the effort.

UMC offers a number of programs to help first-generation college students, including a financial literacy program that helps students report payments they make in dorms as a way to help build a credit score. The campus has been recognized nationally for its work with first-generation students.

The school is also overhauling its academic advising process, which aims to help students navigate college courses more easily and allow professors to reach out to struggling students sooner.

The University of Jamestown recently remodeled the lower level of its library into a student success center to help students with a wide array of questions in an easy-to-access spot. It also has gotten together with local partners to help students with mental health and health services.

UJ President Polly Peterson said faculty is encouraged to eat lunch with students to help bridge gaps and make it easier for students to reach out to a professor when they’re struggling.

“Family and food go together,” she said. “It breaks down barriers, it makes it easier. Sometimes, it's less threatening. If you see a faculty member walking by your table at lunch, and they stopped to say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ And you can say, ‘you know, can I come and see you?’”

Peterson said making those simple changes can help drive retention rates and help students graduate, while also helping enrollment numbers.