NKU opens a one-stop services center to boost graduation and retention rates

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Dennis Repenning loves the students of Northern Kentucky University – really, he does.

But… “We want you to graduate and move on,” the board of regents chair said. “Outside that door is a new life.”

Tackling NKU’s stubbornly low retention and graduation rates was a major motivation behind development of its Student Success Center, a new one-stop shop that brings together 10 vital service centers under one roof.

Faculty and administrators want the facility to connect all the dots to give students the best chance possible to stay in school, perform well and be focused on a career path along the way.

NKU’s freshmen class grew nearly 10 percent this year, but its overall enrollment was flat due to attrition. According to statistics compiled by U.S. News & World Report, the freshmen retention rate is 67 percent, the four-year graduation rate is 13 percent, and the six-year graduation rate is 37 percent.

NKU President Geoffrey Mearns noted that the numbers ticked up this year – the four-year graduation rate ticked up improved from 11 percent, for example compared to 2012 – but he wants much better results in coming years.

Speaking at the center’s grand opening Wednesday, Mearns said collaboration among services to keep students on the right track was at the heart of the center.

The new center gathers 11 service providers from all points of the campus into the University Center building, which has undergone major renovations.

Kadori Ngirabakunzi, a second-year nursing student, visited the Norse Tech Bar, a cluster of flat-screen computers and other hardware that is staffed by IT experts.

“We needed to work on our study guide, and I had to get my NKU email hooked up to my phone,” she said.

Ngirabakunzi had been downstairs to get help with finding scholarships. “I really like it. This place is great,” she said.

The colocation has connected many more students to the Testing & Disability Services office, according to Laura Dektas, the office’s secretary. Students with any diagnosed physical or mental impairment can receive help to ensure they can thrive in school.

“We’re leveling the playing field,” Dektas said, making special arrangements like longer test times for students diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or providing software that reads computerized text for blind students.

She said there are about 600 active students with documented disabilities taking classes.

Shirl Short, associate director of the career services office, said bunching all of the services together has already prompted closer cooperation among agencies.

“We have a whole slew of folks we can refer people to,” she said, to make sure that students aren’t waylaid by any number of potential impediments, including physical or mental health challenges, money issues or even language barriers, in the case of international students, who can visit the international education center.

For students who are preparing to graduate, the career center has 2,800 employers on file ready to help place graduate in a job through the Norse Recruiting database.

Jerry Hazlett, an army veteran and a nursing student, has taken advantage of the Veteran’s Resource Center to study with fellow student Tara Rich and to interact with other veterans trying to transition into academia from the military. “It’s fantastic. I think it’s great,” he said.

Marshall “Dave” Merriss, director of the veterans station, said his office is the first point of contact for the 500-plus veterans on campus. It’s a place to study, socialize and be connected to peer mentors.

Nancy Castlemen, 65, is a 1976 NKU grad who jumped at the chance to return to campus to take tuition-free classes using the school’s Donovan fellowship that pays tuition and fees for people 65 or older for credited courses.

She’s taking art appreciation and American history courses and has used multiple services at the success center, including boning up on computer work.

“That’s the hardest part of being an old student – all this technology,” Castleman said. Still, she’s adapting with some help and having a lot of fun while learning, she said. “I thought that the only way I was going to come here for free was as a cadaver for the nursing students,” she said laughing.

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