College of Education Team to Study Student Retention Methods

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

Researchers in UTEP’s College of Education will embark on an ambitious two-year study to address student retention at The University of Texas at El Paso in general and within the college, in particular.

Josefina V. “Josie” Tinajero, Ed.D., professor and dean of the college, is the principal investigator of Project SUCCESS (Striving for Undergraduate Coordinated and Comprehensive Enhanced Student Support).

She based her grant application on figures reported from 2006 through 2011 (the latest numbers available), by UTEP’s Center for Institutional Evaluation, Research and Planning. It showed a large percentage of UTEP’s first-time, full-time students left the University during their first two years. While the rate of student retention grew somewhat during that period, it still hovered near 72 percent Universitywide; slightly more in the College of Education (COE). To compare, a January 2011 study by ACT, a nonprofit test and research group, stated that 67 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges return for their sophomore year.

“These numbers are unacceptable,” Tinajero said.

The Texas Guaranteed (TG) Student Loan Corp.’s Public Benefit Grant Program approved the $182,000 grant so Tinajero’s team could analyze the available services at the University and the COE, interview students to learn why they dropped out, and see what can be done to address their concerns and increase completion rates.

While the grant officially begins Sept. 1, Tinajero was able to secure funds from the UTEP Provost’s Office this summer so her researchers, including undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students, could get a head start on the project.

“Dean Tinajero and her team, which includes both undergraduate and graduate students, are to be congratulated for undertaking a challenging, yet critically important, question: do different student subgroups – such as students who go into certain fields – have either additional or new characteristics (compared to previous cohorts) that either enhance or inhibit persistence and retention in college?” said UTEP Provost Junius Gonzales. “For critically important fields such as education whose mission is producing high quality teachers, these data are important to gather, analyze, interpret, and apply the findings. Finally, with macro level influences, such as changes in both federal and state financial aid, that differentially and negatively impact under-resourced students, this project will hopefully make a contribution to mitigating those influences.”

Tinajero said the initial analysis of the UTEP data showed several factors contribute to the student attrition, such as poor grades in high school, work commitments outside school, low mathematics placement levels, and limited success with initial college courses.

She said one of the initial plans is to develop graduate mentors who will guide and advise COE underclassmen in such areas as college orientation, academic studies and socialization. Those mentors also will develop community service and service-learning projects for sixth grade students involved in UTEP’s successful Mother-Daughter/Father-Son Program, which encourages students and their parents to create a college-bound culture in their homes.

Raymond Falcon, a UTEP doctoral student and secondary education teacher, will be one of those graduate mentors. He said such concepts would have come in handy when he was slogging his way toward a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies. The El Paso native dropped out of UTEP several times to earn money and take care of his young family. Being a first-generation college student, he said he did not know where to look for help.

Through perseverance and the support of his family, he earned his undergraduate degree in 1996 and followed that with a Master of Arts in Education in 2008. He is on track to receive his Ph.D. in teaching, learning and culture next winter.

He said he looks forward to guiding and counseling pre-education majors about their degree plans, and offering information about University services such as tutoring and financial aid.

“We want to provide our students with a support plan that may not have been in place for them before,” said Falcon, an advanced quantitative reasoning teacher at Eastwood High School and a teacher mentor in El Paso’s Ysleta Independent School District for many of the past 16 years. “This research is important to me because I don’t want others to have to go through what I did. I want them to have the level of support that I did not have to create a foundation for success.”