Schools lose students every year. “Financial stress,” “personal reasons” and “academic matters” are a few reasons students cite. Normally there’s a trend – the spike in dropouts acting as a sort of bittersweet red flag that allows institutions to diagnose one of their problems and fix it. Cal Poly is like a lot of those schools, losing students that worked hard to get admitted. But there is a problem: Cal Poly does not know why.

“We were secretly hoping that there would be a clear correlation to something,” Cal Poly statistics instructor Matt Carlton said.

Carlton aided research regarding students choosing not to return to school after attending the previous quarter. That way Cal Poly would know what to do or what to address, Carlton said.

“We were secretly hoping that there would be a clear correlation to something”

Some universities observe that the students who choose not to return to their campus are older or were admitted with lower qualifications than other students. In other words, they are outsiders: students who are older than the rest or barely got into the school. But Cal Poly does not have those variables. Cal Poly’s campus is largely homogenous, Carlton said. The students are all about the same age and most of them are academically qualified to be where they are.

So when Carlton asked, “Why would students who are doing fine [academically], you know, not enroll in the next quarter?” the first thing that popped into everyone’s minds was money. But most students at Cal Poly did not cite that reason for leaving. In fact, the median Cal Poly student comes from a household that brings in upwards of $150,000 per year.

The data Cal Poly collected didn’t reveal much. The students that did not re-enroll the following quarter were proportional to the students that attend each college, Carlton said. The engineering student body makes up about 35 percent of the school, and about 30 percent of students that did not enroll the following quarter were in that major. Architecture was the same: proportional, yet still unexplainable.

“The Registrar’s office themselves were reaching out to students. Like, literally a person on a phone calling hundreds of students,” Carlton said. “Hey, checking in. You haven’t registered. Blah blah blah,” Carlton said, mimicking a phone call with a student.

There were around 700 students who did not enroll in classes at the start of Fall 2018 — translating into 700 phone calls and emails.

Assistant Vice Provost of University Advising Beth Merritt Miller knows a lot about freshman graduation rates, the logistics of Cal Poly’s infrastructure and Cal Poly’s “Active-Not-Enrolled” program – in which Cal Poly reaches out to students who did not register for classes for the quarter. 

“There’s an expected 92 percent freshman graduation rate,” Miller said. “And we physically don’t have enough students left to reach that graduation rate.”

In an effort to help students who slip through the cracks at Cal Poly, the university established retention specialist positions — people who can talk to students and let them know that they are there to help. Carly Head is one of those specialists.

“Carly is the one that calls,” Miller said.

Head is the type of professional that makes others forget she has an official title; any moniker would seem too rigid or impersonal. She recently attended the wedding of a former student whom she made a connection with. At the same wedding, another former Cal Poly student saw her from across the room and told his girlfriend that Head got him through college. Head simply responded by saying, “You did all the work. I just got to be the helpful support along the way.”  

“I will say, sometimes it can feel like a cold call,” Head said. “Or a sales position.”

But as someone with advising experience, she is used to not knowing what’s coming – so, sitting on the other side of the phone is not completely foreign. The first 20 calls made to students went unanswered. Head said she wonders if an Instagram direct message might be effective.

But when they do answer, there is an array of different responses.

Head said she heard one student say, “Wow, I didn’t know that Cal Poly cares about me … that has not been my experience here at Cal Poly.”

Other times, it had nothing to do with the school. Another student she called was probably joining the military. Some students just get homesick — another moved back home and transferred to the University of Oregon to be closer to their family.

Head is there to make sure students find help on campus, whether that help is referring them to the financial aid office, showing them how to take a quarter off or just listening to what students have to say. She is not a licensed counselor, but she listens nonetheless.

“What breaks my heart is the feeling that Cal Poly doesn’t care about a student, the feeling that one bad experience with the school has alienated a student,” Head said. “While one phone call from me won’t change those experiences, if it can help them in their journey and reflection in their time at Cal Poly, great.”

The reasons students give for leaving are far and wide, according to Carlton. 

“Only a tiny number said that the [reason for leaving] was really financial,” Carlton said. “Probably the biggest single category of response was just people who broadly said it was personal reasons.”

For the study, Cal Poly was not allowed to see if household income played a factor, due to federal law.

About a quarter of the students that did not enroll during the studied quarter enrolled the following quarter. Still, both Miller and Head believe there are “low-hanging fruit” that can be scooped up.

“As a university, we’ve set up these artificial barriers that we didn’t even know were there,” Miller said.

A student who has holds on their account may be unable to register for classes and not know where to go. Miller said that should not happen.

“It was really hard for me to feel like students do so much to get into Cal Poly; they work so hard to get in the door — time and money and effort,” Head said.

Yet, some students still leave. Sometimes it is just a fit issue.

According to Carlton, some students’ conversations move away from motives mentioned above and sound instead like, “Yeah, Cal Poly just really isn’t for me. I grew up in a really diverse area. Cal Poly is the whitest place on earth. I really need to be back among not all white people.”

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