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NMSU begins research on student retention issues

It's a daunting picture. Between 1999 and 2003, 28 percent of first-time/full-time freshmen did not return to New Mexico State University after their first year. An average of 39.5 percent did not return after their second year; and 44 percent did not return on average after their third year.


ain drain is a problem confronting all New Mexico universities, according to a July report to NMSU's Board of Regents by Gladys DeNecochea, NMSU vice president for student services, and Brad Bankhead, associate vice president for enrollment management.

Two NMSU professors, Enedina Garcia-Vazquez, associate dean of the Graduate School, and Walter Zakahi, head of the Department of Communication Studies, along with a university team composed of Susan Brown, Jennifer Nanez, and Mozella Garcia, are ready to launch a research project on the issue with recent NMSU students as their subjects.

"I hate the thought of students coming here and leaving without a degree," Zakahi said when discussing the motivation behind the study that will focus on more than 300 freshman students who enrolled for classes at NMSU in the fall of 2004, but who didn't return for the spring 2005 session.

They have developed a survey that will be sent to those who did not re-enroll in the hopes of determining what the motivation was for these students to come to college in the first place and then what factors led them to discontinue their studies.

A separate group of about 50 students will be randomly selected to participate in focus groups that will go beyond the survey questionnaire to try to discover what is happening to keep students from completing a degree.

"There's a lot of research out there that tells us what kinds of strategies are effective for reaching students," García-Vazquez said. But much of it is generalized from national studies. The NMSU team believes to be effective in the region, the research must be done on students from the region.

"We want to know what's going on with our kids and what can we do to meet their particular needs," García-Vazquez said.

"Our real goal is to help the institution develop a set of strategies that are going to meet our students' needs," Zakahi added.

The idea for the research began with the chair of the NMSU Hispanic Faculty and Staff Caucus, Luis Vazquez. While the idea began in an effort to explore retention among Latino/a students, it broadened as an opportunity to look at factors for all students who failed to come back to school. Some of those factors seem obvious.

"I've been teaching here 15 years," Zakahi said. "This is my third campus as university professor. I was at West Virginia and Rutgers - both land-grant universities. I have never been on a campus where such a high percentage of students have to work full time to pay for school. (That) very likely has an impact on retention. I routinely see students here stopping out for a semester to pay bills.

"Many of our students are a crisis away from being in academic trouble. They lose their day care. Their car breaks down. They lose their financial aid. Then they can't buy a textbook. How can you learn without a book?"

The university president and provost are providing financial support for the research. The team hopes to offer a financial incentive to those taking time from their jobs and schedules to participate in the focus groups.

Through discovering why these students enrolled in the first place and then why they decided not to come back to school, Garcia-Vazquez and Zakahi believe they can help improve both retention and recruitment for all NMSU students.

NMSU can then devise strategies that can help with better retention, Zakahi said. For example, smoothing out the re-registration process may impact retention among those who have had to take a break from school for a semester or two.

"We have a responsibility to students," Zakahi said. "If they choose us, we should do every thing to get them through to their degrees and careers"

Said García-Vazquez, "It's part of the land-grant mission."