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Massachusetts state universities get creative to keep student retention up

Public state universities in Massachusetts have higher retention rates than the national average but still struggle to address student needs and prevent departures.

Professors, support staff, and higher education experts cite an uptick in students leaving college before completion. One educator at Salem State University noted students' class participation and assignment completion has decreased.Adobe Stock

Dane Morrison, a professor of history at Salem State University, says he has been getting ghosted more than usual in the past three years.

More and more students are not participating in discussions, refusing to turn in assignments, and sometimes never attending class — ghosting him, said Morrison, who’s taught at the public university since 1993.

“Students just disappear,” he said.

Laura Baker, a professor of economics, political science, and history at Fitchburg State University, said she has had similar experiences with her students, many of whom endured upheavals in their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic when they were still in high school.


“Students don’t just drift away,” she said in a phone interview last week. “There are a number of reasons why they find themselves unable to complete a term or enroll for consecutive terms.”

Professors, support staff, and higher education experts have cited financial stressors and emotional turmoil as reasons that students have left college before completion. State universities are scrambling to implement more forgiving academic policies and increase outreach to keep students at their institutions.

With enrollment on the decline at most public state universities, professors and academic staff are bolstering the support they offer to students in an effort to retain them. Though Massachusetts has a lower rate of dropouts than the national average, the rate of retention, also known as persistence, has stalled.

According to a 2022 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, achieving growth in graduation rates has been a struggle across the country.

The national completion rate for public four-year universities is 68 percent, down 1 percent from the previous cohort, and in Massachusetts, the college completion rate for those between 20 and 24 years old has decreased from 74.1 percent in the 2013 cohort to 68.4 percent in the 2016 cohort. Academics use the term cohort to describe a class or group of students who start together in a given year. For college completions, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center measures cohorts in a six-year period. The 2016 cohort, for example, graduated by 2022.


The average among Massachusetts’ four-year public institutions is 75.1 percent, down 1 percentage point from a decade ago. But many administrators and faculty at public universities in Massachusetts are implementing new strategies to keep students enrolled, despite rates remaining higher than the national average.

Sabrina Gentlewarrior, vice president of student success, equity, and diversity at Bridgewater State University, said students at her institution are often “at particular risk for non-persistence, often due to factors that are not at all their fault.”

Bridgewater State has one of the state’s highest rates of persistence, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. Of the 1,335 full-time first-year students who began at the university in the fall of 2020, 1,053, or 79 percent, returned the following year.

Bridgewater State has created multiple programs in an effort to retain more students. In the spring of 2020, the university launched a “student navigator” program that gives students a mentor on their first day of school to “provide 360-degree support,” according to Gentlewarrior.

And if a student doesn’t register for classes the following semester, volunteers at the university check in with postcards, texts, and phone calls.

At Framingham State University, Donna Bridges, dean of student success and persistence, said the number of students there who have fallen beneath academic standards has “inched up a bit,” and the school has “taken a lot of steps” to try to improve on that. Those who are working above academic standards are less likely to leave the institution, she said.


Seventy-one percent of first-year students at Framingham State in fall 2020 returned the next year, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

Framingham State has implemented more forgiving academic policies to encourage retention.

Faculty members can trigger a withdrawal policy if a student is disengaged with a course for 21 consecutive days, removing the class — and a possible failing grade — from the student’s records. Students can also opt to take classes pass/fail. If a student passes, the class remains on their record. If they fail, it is erased, with no failing grade reported.

“This is an existential moment for higher education,” Bridges said. “You have to dig deep and become student-ready campuses. We’re meeting them where they are while trying to maintain standards for academic performance. It’s tough.”

Finding ways to support students is key, said higher education expert Mike Kantrowitz.

“The key to dealing with retention issues is you have to be aware of what’s affecting the [students] and talk to them, intervene, and offer support,” he said. “It might not be financial support. It might be emotional or social support, academic support.”

Fitchburg State’s one-year return rate is lower than both state and nationwide averages. Just 63 percent of students starting in the fall of 2020 returned the following year, the state’s Department of Higher Education reported.


“We talk about strategies for doing more,” Baker said. “To reach out to students, to find ways to provide more support, to try to be more lenient. Maybe making shorter assignments, maybe assignments that are less frequent, certainly giving more time and being more generous with late assignments.”

Elizabeth Bidinger, an English professor at Worcester State University, said she has been “shocked” over the past few years by her students’ attitudes in classes. The difference between students before and after the pandemic, she said, is stark.

“The students would honestly sit in class with their arms folded, leaning back in their chairs kind of looking almost disgruntled with education in general,” she said in an interview. “They were sort of bracing themselves to be hostile or untrusting.”

Bidinger, like other professors who spoke to the Globe, said she has modified assignments. Even then, she said, students sometimes have requested alternative projects when assignments seemed too daunting. Only three students in her class of 20 completed an assigned oral presentation last year, she said.

Bidinger, who has taught at Worcester State for 16 years, said she has seen an increase in students taking time off or dropping out over the past few years.

And, she said, “I’ve never had so many students just stop showing up to class, just totally ghosting me.”

Despite this, she said it was hard to blame the students for their struggles in college classes after experiencing most of high school during the pandemic.


“It’s not that they’re weaker, and it’s not that they’re lazy,” Bidinger said. “It’s going to sound dramatic, but there’s a cohort coming back from a war in the sense. We have to understand that they have been through it.”

Worcester state has a 73 percent rate of return among first-year students, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

Thomas Kelley, Worcester State’s retention director, said the university is using strategies like those at Bridgewater State and Framingham State to retain students. School officials text, e-mail, and call those who seem to have fallen behind, and send surveys about the circumstances of the departure to those who opt to take a leave of absence or drop out.

“We’ve had a lot of great systems at our institution, things that identify at-risk students during the semester,” he said. “We do a great job being intentional, asking the students the right question.”

And Ryan Forsythe, vice president of enrollment management at the university, said he has seen a different situation at Worcester State than some other state schools.

Worcester State, “like other regional public universities, saw a decrease in the number of students attending college in the fall of 2020.” But despite that, he said, Worcester State has “rebounded since COVID-19.”

Morrison, the history professor at Salem State, said he has been working on being more understanding of his students and what they go through.

“Our population is not privileged,” he said. “Our population are working-class, lower-middle-class students who, for the most part, work a lot.”

Elllie Wolfe can be reached at Follow her @elliew0lfe.