Mary Harrison, staff writer
Following COVID-19, many colleges are experiencing increased student withdrawals. Berry administrators are not alarmed at the current rate, although the numbers are not available until the end of the semester.
730 first-year students, excluding transfer students, started at Berry in the fall of 2021. College Registrar and Director of Institutional Research Bryce Durbin said that it’s unsure how many students are currently enrolled, because retention rates are tracked and recorded on a semester-by-semester basis. These statistics are published annually in the college’s institutional Fact Book and in media surveys such as the US News and World Report.
David Slade, associate provost and dean of academic services, said it is hard to compare retention data between first-year students and other classes at this point in the semester.
“[A college] does not have a dashboard telling you how many students have withdrawn [up to this point in] this year,” Slade said.
Durbin explained that Berry will have to wait and see how the numbers bear out after the add/drop period closes in Jan. 2022.
“COVID’s impact on high school, the experience in quarantine, all those things are interesting factors to try to understand their impact [on retention], so I think there are some good questions there,” Durbin said. “For me, the indicator will be the choice to return in the fall. Our efforts about retention are, very focused on looking whether [students] come back in the spring and then in the fall.”
This year’s sophomore class had an 85% retention rate from first to second year, tying with the fall 2015 cohort for the highest retention rate in 14 years.
“We did a really good job retaining students compared to places like us,” Casey Dexter, associate professor of psychology, said. “I think COVID did do a number on [student] retention across the academics, Four-year private schools did see a dip, but not nearly as pronounced as many other institutions, and I don’t think that we saw that dip, to the same degree, here at Berry.”
According to Slade, official statistics of current enrollment are not accessible on current freshmen, but the number of students who have withdrawn or taken leaves of absence this year is not abnormal. Slade meets with every student that takes these actions in his capacity as Dean of Academic Services and Associate Provost.
“We have had students to withdraw up until now, just like we do every semester,” Slade said. “Anecdotally, I don’t know that I would raise a flag to say that this is an alert.”
Based on anecdotal evidence, students overall are facing more stress than previous years, according to Dean of Students Lindsey Taylor.
“The counseling center is booked out right now, about four weeks,” Taylor said. “The Academic Success Center, in terms of individual consultations, they’re booked out now for two weeks. The demand is just peaking right now in ways that we haven’t seen historically. To the same extent, the counseling center typically always has a wait; this long out, is unheard of.”
Dexter believes the pandemic will mentally impact a first-year student’s decision about whether to attend college.
“Things were maybe looking a little bit better in the summer, and it kind of slammed shut again,” Dexter said. “Psychologically, that’s very defeating when you have these built-up expectations. Then you have to foreclose on some of those possibilities, and you’re back at where you were hoping you weren’t going to be at again. And now, there’s still this question mark about how long is this going to last for.”
Dexter also believes that the pandemic will have fiscal impacts on first-year students and their families.
“I worry that some students are having to make a business decision, so to speak, and I think that’s perfectly reasonable, as people get a clearer sense of how this is going to impact them financially [in the] long term,” Dexter said, “I don’t think we have a full grasp on it yet.”
Dexter also pointed out that currently both unemployment rates and job openings are up, creating a huge demand for labor and higher starting wages that equal different opportunities and incentives for potential students to instead jump into a career in the workforce.
Unlike students who take a leave of absence or drop a few of their classes, a withdrawn student ends their relationship with the college as a degree seeking student. According to Slade, not all students who have left campus have withdrawn or taken a leave of absence, Slade stated, so the student body should be wary of making assumptions.
“There may be students who are perceived not to be here, but that doesn’t mean they are withdrawn,” Slade said. “There have been students who have quarantined, there have been students who have had issues to come up in their lives like every semester where they’ve had to step away [from campus]. Our faculty are really generous, very flexible faculty who work with students in all sorts of ways. I would be very slow to make assumptions about students withdrawing from the college based on perceptions.”
Some students who withdraw intend to transfer to another academic institution. A student who has withdrawn from Berry has not necessarily “dropped out” of school. Slade emphasized that Berry cares more about students’ lives than its retention statistics.
Specific programs and positions that the college earmarks as working toward student retention include weekly meetings of a student care team, where professionals from student affairs and academic affairs respond to alerts submitted on behalf of students, the BCC 100 program, the Academic Success Center, the Writing Center, the Counseling Center, Virtual Care Group online counseling sessions, LifeWorks supervisors and resident assistants.
“Student success is everybody’s job at Berry,” Slade said. “I don’t think anyone can check out of that job. There is no reason to be here except for the students. There’s lots of moving parts. But those programs do not exist to nudge a data level up. They exist to just be a support to students.”
Slade, who teaches a BCC 100 class himself, tells first-year students to reach out for help if they feel like they are struggling.
“This is the point in the semester when people are really feeling the difficulty of the transition to college,” Slade said. “So right now is not a great time to rethink big life decisions, when you’re maybe not sleeping enough, when you’re stressed, you’re still trying to find your grounding in a new community. Now is the time to actually reach out and to take the support that communities here offer.”
Taylor encourages students to go to the resources that Berry offers, even if they aren’t sure they need it yet.
“I am afraid that students will reach those particular resources a little too late,” Taylor said. “Utilize them day one, all you need to do is raise your hand and say ‘Hey, [I need help],’ but sometimes doing that is just really hard.”
Despite these pandemic-related struggles, administrators said that first-year students are doing well by simply attending college.
“I think that for our current freshmen, there is currently a story of resilience, not of withdrawal,” Slade said. “What you all have experienced, just to get to this point you’re taking the step to be at a college, to be in-person, to engage like this, I think that shows a whole lot of resilience. I know that there, are people going through really, tough times, and I’m not trying to gloss over that, but I have a lot of admiration for this class and what y’all are stepping into.”