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By Sonja Puzic

Katia Vetrovcova never thought she would be a university dropout.

She was an A student in high school whose homework everyone else copied five minutes before class. “You are ready to take on university!” was a typical comment on her Grade 12 essays and tests.

Nevertheless, she found herself failing three crucial classes at the end of her first year in Ryerson’s rigorous Chemical Engineering program. “I just crashed,” Vetrovcova said. “Nothing could have prepared me for the amount of work and stress the program involved. I worked so hard, but it wasn’t enough. I cried every night and then I realized I had to give up.”

Vetrovcova’s story is just one of hundreds of academic failures recorded in Ryerson’s books. Improving student retention rates–the percentage of students who enrol and remain in a program until they graduate–has been a major priority for the university over the last few years.

Programs such as engi-neering, computer science, and business have had traditionally poor retention. According to the most recent statistics available, which were released in 2003, 51.9 per cent of applied chemistry and biology students did not graduate. Engineering students fared better at 38.6 per cent, followed closely by computer and social science students. Business students followed with a 33.5 per cent rating.

Dismal numbers

These dismal numbers prompted department chairs and other administrative officials to invest resources, time and money into initiatives to keep students in school. Christopher Evans, chair of applied chemistry and biology, refused to comment on why his program had the worst retention record in the school.

But Zouheir Fawaz, associate dean of engineering, explained that his faculty has worked hard to improve its graduation rates. Fawaz said that student retention rates within the various branches of engineering were “terrible” in the early 1990s, but they dramatically increased with the introduction of costly student-support initiatives, particularly those targeting freshmen.

He credits the 81 per cent retention rate among last year’s first-year engineering students to the First-Year and Common Engineering Office. The FYCEO was established to help students transition from high school to university. It provides first years with assistance with academic and administrative problems–but it is also costs Ryerson somewhere between $120,000 and $150,000 a year.

Li-Lian Lui, a first-year civil engineering student, said a student representative from the FYCEO helped her make the difficult decision to drop out of Ryerson’s architecture program and switch into civil engineering. “She was very helpful during the time when I started having doubts about architecture,” Lui said. “I owe a lot to her.”

Just recently Lui attended a student midterm prep night, organized by the FYCEO. Fawaz said the Early Intervention Program is another crucial retention-oriented initiative because it identifies students who are failing one or more classes mid-semester and encourages them to attend an interview with a member of the FYCEO’s academic support team.

First-year students must also take an English and math proficiency test, so problem areas can be identified early. Similar initiatives such as free tutoring have been put into place at the School of Business Management, which currently has about 3,100 full-time students. According to Maurice Mazerolle, business’s director of student affairs, roughly 1,400 students have sought assistance from the resource centre since last fall. Still, he has 140 suspended students and about 350 probationary students to deal with in the coming weeks.

Despite these numbers, Mazerolle said official student retention rates are “deceiving” because many business students are “out of phase,” meaning they are taking first- or second-year courses in their third or fourth year of study and therefore simply delaying graduation.

Not all schools at Ryerson have to come up with big bucks to keep students from dropping out or being suspended. The School of Early Childhood Education has maintained one of the highest student retention rates for years, topping the 2003 list of most successful programs with an 87.3 per cent graduation rate.

The secret to its success: Lots of academic and personal support and a huge demand for the program, said director Carol Dale Shipley. “Most people really want to be here and are truly passionate about working with children,” Shipley said.

Shipley said she has relatively few probationary students and even fewer dropouts. Faculty advisers alert her to the at-risk students, whose problems are dealt with through the counselling department and one-on-one sessions with faculty members. Student retention has always been a pressing issue across Ontario universities and colleges.

A study that traced all Ontario university students from 1980 to 1993 found that 30 per cent had discontinued enrolment without graduation and without registering in any other Ontario university.

However, retention rates in Ontario universities have been some of the highest in Canada for several decades thanks to institutions like the University of Guelph, which maintains an overall graduation rate of 89 per cent, and a 91 per cent retention rate (which is slightly different because it includes transfer students).

“The town revolves around the university…it’s very personal,” said Robin Honderich, a philosophy student at U of G. “It’s an easier transition in first year because they get people meeting people (very quickly),” he said.

But while Guelph tops the country’s list for overall retention, it seems student retention rates at Ryerson are still an uphill battle for our administration. Registrar Keith Alnwick confirmed that 308 students withdrew from full-time Ryerson degree programs last semester alone. A consensus among the chairs and directors of programs with retention problems is that students are juggling too many responsibilities.

Juggling act

“I know some students who work 30 hours a week and then are hit with five or six tests in October, without having enough time to prepare,” said Fawaz.”We know that students have to work, but we can’t go easy on them either. We have to uphold the academic integrity of the program.”

Mazerolle has another theory that many students may be able to identify with. “It seems like many students see university as a race,” he said.”They think: ‘I have a four-year clock and if I drop some courses that are not going well, I’m not going to win the race.’ That kind of thinking gets students in trouble.” Fawaz agrees. “Nobody says you have to finish (university) in four years,” he said.

“You can still graduate in five or six years with a nice, clean academic record.”

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