Cameron Hardin, a 22-year-old who finished his classes at the University of Kentucky in December, got his wake-up call right after the first round of tests his freshman year.
"It was kind of a slap in the face," he said. "I felt like I was really prepared, and when I started in classes I realized how unprepared I was."
Hardin graduated in 2007 from a tiny school in far Eastern Kentucky with 350 students in grades 7 through 12.
But he turned around his academic performance at UK by taking advantage of its peer tutoring program and is poised to graduate as a political science major.
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UK, which still wants to attain the academic cachet that comes from higher national rankings, needs to increase the percentage of students who graduate each year. That means the university has to focus on the academic core of the campus, the area of undergraduate education that some faculty members refer to as the "Valley of Death" that exists between the twin money makers of athletics and medicine.
That focus also will be critical to the success of the new president who will take office after UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. leaves in June.
Retaining and graduating a high percentage of students is a key component of college rankings, including those of U.S. News and World Report, which recently increased the importance of retention numbers in the formula it says provides quality rankings of American colleges. UK is 129th of 191 national universities in the magazine's overall rankings.
Among the top 25 universities as ranked by the magazine in 2010, freshmen retention rates top out at 99 percent for Yale University and dip only to 96 percent for schools such as Vanderbilt University. Among SEC schools, the University of Georgia has a 94 percent retention rate; Auburn University, 86 percent, and Louisiana State University 84 percent.
UK's retention rate for freshmen in 2010 was 81.9 percent.
But when UK Provost Kumble Subbaswamy declared a $35 million War on Student Attrition in 2007, the rate was only 76.4 percent.
"We used to lose a quarter of our class," said Subbaswamy. "They got into academic trouble too early."
Since then, UK has greatly expanded its commitment to help any student who starts at the university to graduate. The goal, mandated by state education reform, is lofty: Retain 90 percent of freshman students by 2020.
UK has launched a raft of programs to increase its rates, even seeking re-enrollment from its dropouts, figuring it's less expensive to help them finish than to recruit a new student.
The university has expanded free peer tutoring, stepped up its advising program, initiated study skills seminars and testing for students with academic problems, and started an early intervention system that signals when a student has missed classes or botched homework.
"We know that the early alerts are where it really makes a difference," said Mike Mullen, UK's associate provost for undergraduate education.
The early-warning system alerts counselors about students who are not showing up for class, are stumbling on tests or not turning in homework.
It also helps first-generation college students who may arrive at college without the "cultural capital" possessed by students who come from college-going families, said Subbaswamy.
"They don't know what a credit hour is sometimes," he said.
How many graduate?
It doesn't make much sense for UK to put time, money and effort into recruiting students if it doesn't keep them in school until graduation. And recruiting efforts in recent years have yielded some of the most academically talented classes in the school's history.
Last year, 13,537 students applied for freshman admission at UK; the 4,326 students who entered had an ACT composite of 25.2 and came from 44 states.
Still, "we're not just working to recruit students," said Don Witt, UK's vice provost for enrollment management. "We're working to graduate students."
UK wants a 72 percent six-year graduation rate by 2020. For students who entered in 2003, the 2009 rate was only 60 percent.
To graduate students, they must first be kept in school and be successful. At UK, the threads of student retention programs can mean everything from helping students succeed in traditional classes that can become stumbling blocks — such as calculus and algebra — to enrolling them in smart-study seminars. They also reach out to Kentucky high schools with courses to help them prepare for their ACT test — one of the college preparatory tests.
Communicating expectations to students while they are still in high school also helps UK to flag students whose ACT scores reflect a weak spot and help them before they enroll at UK.
"We're trying to get away from remediation," said Mullen.
Among the programs UK uses for prospective students in high school is the PLATO interactive class-on-a-computer system for students who have fallen behind. It gives them what Mullen calls "a tailored environment where students can get what they need when they need it."
ACT testing itself provides a wake-up call to many Kentucky students and their parents, who assume that getting B's and better in high school will assure them of college success. Test scores in areas such as math are often indicative of areas where students will have problems in college.
"So many of our students in K-12 are taking the courses they're being told to take," said Robert King, president of Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education. But after testing "they discover that they're not nearly as well-prepared as their grades in high school would have led them to believe."
The post-Todd era
One of the reasons some say UK was having trouble retaining students was the outmoded undergraduate curriculum, which is being updated.
Ernie Yanarella, a UK political science professor and former trustee, was among its early critics, calling it "a relic of the 20th century."
"The university studies program was initiated back in the early 1980s to reflect the view ... that students could pick and choose. There was a lot of freedom ... (but) there was no effort to engage in a periodic program review of general education."
Yanarella kept sounding the clarion — "To have a Top 20 university, we had to have Top 20 general education program" — so often that Todd eventually charged him with putting together a committee to begin to reform it.
The freshman class that comes to UK this fall will be the first to experience UK's new undergraduate general education requirements, which are still in pilot form. Previously, they emphasized the acquisition of a large block of knowledge rather than the teaching of reasoning and the process of intellectual inquiry.
Now, said Subbaswamy, the general education program "is as effective, if not more, as what you would get at a small liberal arts college."
Todd said the core curriculum badly needed updating: "You acquired some knowledge, but it was not cohesive."
Todd hopes the curriculum change will take UK even further. "I'm hopeful that the new undergraduate curriculum will keep students here," he said. "When you look at places that we're trying to catch — the Ohio States, the Michigans — we're going to have to get bigger."
He said UK could grow as it rises in reputation and rankings. But the stumbling block to undergraduate growth is that first UK would have to be able to afford to hire the faculty to teach those additional students.
The Study, in the Complex Commons building near Cooper Drive, provides free informal counseling to students by their peers; it also gives them a chance to meet other students in their classes in a smaller, less intimidating environment than a packed lecture hall.
"I've loved The Study since I came here freshman year," said Lindsey Mayes of Alexandria, who started as a student receiving peer tutoring, then went on to become a tutor and academic counselor. "Even though it is a huge campus, it is a home away from home."
Students who come to peer tutoring once typically return at least three more times, said Karin Lewis, director of UK Academic Enhancement.
"We have students who come in who are really struggling and students who have never had a B in their lives," Lewis said.
She said the program "has a considerable impact on students who are not so strong, as well as those who say, 'I don't want the B-plus, I want the A.'"
Still, no program can retain every student who starts at UK.
Jordan Hall, a graduate of Knott County High School, was gone before the end of his first semester in 2008.
Hall said he made the transition from small town to university community well and liked his classes — particularly his history class — but said he didn't go to parties or socialize much. He missed the mountains.
"The thing I was looking for was actually back home," said Hall, who now attends Hazard Community College and is working toward a business degree. "I was kind of working against myself."