By Josh Wingrove
Associate News Editor
A Ryerson chair claims retention rates are improving, but Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities’ data show otherwise. What leads to retention data, and what is Ryerson doing to keep its students?
Dave Hartog came to Ryerson two years ago with the zeal and trepidation of any other first year. Raised in Whitby, Hartog moved into Pitman Hall at 18 and began his degree in computer science.
The first weeks went well. Classes were challenging, residence was fun and the life of a first-year was refreshingly liberating — Hartog drank alcohol for the first time his third night in residence, passing out on Gould Sreet before being hospitalized.
That’s when Hartog’s typical university experience started to fall apart. Coursework piled up.
He had trouble making friends with his classmates, who were “too nerdy.” Hartog fell behind in class and by the end of the year, he’d failed three courses.
A sit-down meeting with program advisors proved fruitless, and Hartog, who maintained an honours average in high school, was placed on suspension and faded from the minds of professors, classmates and the registrar.
The help sessions failed in keeping him at Ryerson, he said. “They made me recognize the problem I already had — I didn’t care — but didn’t help me fix it.”
“I never studied for a test. In high school, I could come to class, listen to a teacher and bullshit a test.
“I could figure it out. In university, I really couldn’t do that,” he added.
Retention is an issue that Ryerson is working to solve.
With the course-drop deadline having come and gone last Friday, current students are in it for the long haul. About 400 students withdraw or drop out from full-time programs each year at Ryerson.
Two months into the semester, 244 have already thrown in the towel. Data released by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities shows computer science to have a graduation rate of just 60 per cent.
For every 10 of Dave’s first-year nerdy friends, four failed. Engineering, biology and chemistry students also drop like flies — fewer than two-thirds of every first-year class will earn a degree.
Zouheir Fawaz, associate dean of engineering, said the school has taken steps to solve its retention issues.
The Faculty of Engineering has raised retention rates to the 80 per cent range, leaving only those for whom engineering is a poor fit, he said.
“We accept students who are predisposed to do well in that program. If we don’t do that job properly, yes, things get ugly.”
“Anybody who is salvageable, if you will, I think we have in place the programs to help them.”
The key, he said, is getting everyone on the same page early. Engineering students receive a “one-stop-shop” handbook on success and take standard math and English examinations in their first month as part of Engineering’s transition program.
Similar programs are offered by other Ontario universities, such as the University of Waterloo, to standardize the foundation of knowledge for new students.
Those who perform poorly on the exam are offered remedial courses to catch them up, Fawaz said.
“As much as we cannot provide the same sort of hand-holding your high school could, we’ll try our best. And it is literally that, hand-holding and guiding.”
One of the initiatives was the establishment of a First-year Common Engineering Office, which Fawaz called a “great success.” The centre offers support and coordinates tutoring for those students who struggle with the six-course schedule in engineering students’ first semester.
Ryerson students in any program can access similar services at the Ryerson Student Success Centre.
Dawn Lovas, a learning strategist with the success centre, said situations such as Hartog’s aren’t uncommon, but services are vailable to prevent a similar outcome.
“Many students find that it takes them a while to adapt to university learning,” he said.
“They maybe excelled in high school and come to university, where a high level of critical thinking is required,” added Lovas.
Fourteen faculty-specific academic links have been hired to hold drop-in hours in residence. Weekly learning groups have been established in different levels of study.
The centre offers tutoring sessions for first-year students, and free learning groups for any of “the high risk” science, engineering and business students.
While some students on probation — those carrying a grade point average less than 2.0 – are required to take the classes, more and more students have been voluntarily enrolling themselves, Lovas said.
“Our service has shifted from being reactive to a more proactive model.”
Graduation rates are higher in some programs, with nursing and radio and television arts leading the way at about 90 per cent.
David Tucker, RTA program chair, said students respond to hands-on training in creative classes.
“I think it gives you a sense of purpose here if you’re doing something tangible,” he said.
Former Ryerson student Brian Wong, 20, left accounting at Ryerson to study sports management at Brock University.
Wong is counted against his program’s graduation rate as he studies in St. Catharines, after realizing — with the help of a couple of D-range grades, — the program wasn’t for him.
“I really didn’t do a good job of researching universities and figuring out what they had to offer,” he said.
“That’s totally my fault.”
He had entered his program after getting honours marks in accounting throughout high school and being exposed to the business by his mother, an accountant herself.
“People go to university for the wrong reasons, and I was definitely one of them… The one thing that scared me the most was a career in accounting, and doing something I hated this much for the rest of my life.”
“I don’t know exactly what I want to do in six or 10 years… As of now, I’m heading in the right direction.”