LATROBE, PA – In a study released by The New York Times, Saint Vincent College ranked among the nation’s best in six-year graduation rate.
In an article entitled “The College Dropout Crisis,” Times journalists David Leonhardt and Sahil Chinoy analyzed data from the 2012 cohort of 368 colleges from across the U.S. and used factors including students’ income, race, gender, age and test scores to create an expected graduation rate for each institution. The statistics also take into account students who transfer and go on to earn a degree at a college they did not originally attend.
Using this formula, Saint Vincent College’s expected rate was determined to be 74 percent. However, SVC significantly outperformed this projection, with its 2011-12 freshman class posting an actual six-year graduation rate of 88 percent. This difference of 14 percentage points was the seventh-largest among all schools surveyed, third-largest among private colleges and the largest among institutions in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Dr. John Smetanka, vice president for academic affairs and academic dean at Saint Vincent, was not surprised by the findings of the study, and feels that SVC’s lofty ranking is well-deserved.
“Saint Vincent has always done well when the big-picture metrics of institutional educational effectiveness are measured,” he said, “namely retention, graduation rate and alumni salary. When you look at student performance measured by things like graduation rate, medical, law and graduate school admission and successful job placement, Saint Vincent is a top performer as The New York Times highlighted.”
As Smetanka noted, Saint Vincent has performed well historically in terms of retention and graduation rate. He feels that this success stems from the personal relationships that students form early in their collegiate tenures with faculty and staff.
“Saint Vincent is characterized by close interactions with faculty and staff,” he said, “as well as personalized advising that starts with academic orientation for students before they begin their first year and continues up to graduation. We continually ensure that students are taking the appropriate steps.”
Dr. Nancy Rottler, assistant vice president for student success and retention at Saint Vincent, also feels that the personal relationships formed between students and faculty have played a large part in the school’s success with retention. Rottler said that the Saint Vincent faculty is proactive in identifying students who may be having difficulty, which leads to early intervention.
“Our office has an outstanding collaborative relationship with faculty,” she said. “We have an academic alert system in place that allows us to identify right away when a student is facing difficulty so that we can quickly get them the help that they may need. We take preventive and proactive measures, such as advising and tutoring, to provide support and help build structure for students who may have difficulty transitioning.”
Rottler noted that Saint Vincent’s efforts in retention go beyond just the monitoring of a student’s academic performance and said that a number of different departments on campus play a role.
“We are a gateway to all of the other offices on campus that offer support,” she said. “When students inform us that they may be planning to withdraw, we make sure to let them know of all available services on campus. If it is a financial problem, the Financial Aid Office will work to give them as much help as they can, and the Career and Professional Development Center can work with them on finding employment while they’re at school. If students are having personal problems and may need someone to talk to, we’ll immediately set them up with the counselors in the Wellness Center. We also frequently work with the Office of the Registrar and Student Affairs. It truly is a comprehensive approach.”
As noted by Smetanka, students receive this attention for the duration of their time at Saint Vincent.
“We provide these academic intervention services for a student’s entire college career,” said Rottler. “We are constantly evaluating their progress and making recommendations based upon their strengths and weaknesses. We want to ensure that each and every student succeeds.”
Nationally, as noted in the Times article, retention and graduation rates of minorities, students with limited income and those with lower test scores have been below average. Rottler is proud to note that this has not been the case at Saint Vincent, thanks in part to special programming in place. The Act 101 program is funded by a state grant through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to serve students who are academically and financially disadvantaged. The U.S. Department of Education’s Student Support Services (SSS-TRIO) program is funded by a federal grant to serve students who have been traditionally underrepresented in college graduation rates, including first-generation, limited income and students with academic need.
Saint Vincent students in the Act 101 program have performed well above average compared to their peers from across the state. Saint Vincent’s Fall 2010 Act 101 cohort posted a graduation rate of 100 percent, double the Act 101 average. The first-year retention rate for the 2016 Saint Vincent cohort stood at 85 percent, 19 percentage points higher than the program average, while SVC’s Act 101 students also outperformed their statewide peers on course completion rate and cumulative grade point average.
The SSS-TRIO program has also been successful at Saint Vincent College. Ninety percent of the SVC students in the program finished the 2017-18 academic year in good academic standing, while 90 percent of the SVC students serviced by the SSS program also either earned their degree or remained enrolled at the College at the beginning of the following academic year.
Established in 1846 as the first Catholic, Benedictine college in the U.S., Saint Vincent remains rooted in the heritage of Benedictine monasticism and guided by the Rule of Saint Benedict. Among the core values included in Saint Benedict’s Rule are discipline, community, respect and stewardship, all of which, according to president Br. Norman Hipps, O.S.B., Ph.D., have ensured Saint Vincent remains successful in its retention efforts.
“The Benedictine character of Saint Vincent creates an atmosphere in which all individuals are treated with care,” he said. “Faculty, staff, administrators and fellow students value servant leadership in which success is measured by the holistic group of each member of the community. The mutual support from the community helps to lift everyone toward their God-given potential.”
“Saint Vincent College attracts employees who want to help,” said Rottler. “Looking at the longevity and tenures of so many SVC staff and faculty members, you can see that they truly are dedicated to the Benedictine mission with how much they care for students and work to ensure they succeed.”
While the administrators are pleased with the results of the Times study, they agree that more can always be done and that their efforts require constant monitoring and tweaking.
“This is a changing generation of students and we must adapt,” said Rottler. “We are developing best practices for responding to the ever-changing student needs. We are looking at ways to use more technology to reach out to students and intervene sooner. I’m always asking students, ‘What do we need to change? We’re listening!’”
“As a Catholic school,” said Br. Norman, “we take our example from the Gospels and the Good Shepherd parable comes to mind. The Good Shepherd will take great pains to retain even a single lost sheep from the flock. While 88 percent of our cohort successfully attaining a degree is an outstanding rate, there are still those whom we could have done more to help.”
“Currently,” Smetanka said, “the College is using technology to help identify students who are struggling in their courses earlier and target support before they get too far behind. Cooperation between Residence Life, the Wellness Center and the athletic department is being enhanced so that students are receiving the support they need inside and outside the classroom. We will never stop looking for new and better ways to serve Saint Vincent College students. It has been our mission since 1846.”
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