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By Don Campbell
Greenville, North Carolina
early a thousand incoming freshmen and
anxious parents are crammed into East Carolina
University’s Wright Auditorium on a steamy hot
morning in late June.
Don Joyner, ECU’s associate vice chancellor for admissions
and advising, is pacing from one end of the stage to the other,
microphone in hand, doing a dead-on imitation of a fire-and-
brimstone televisionminister exhorting the faithful in a high-
pitched twang.
He’s deep into a well-practiced recitation of what it takes
to succeed in college—get involved in campus activities,
use the library, learn some basic study skills, have realistic
expectations—beginning with commandment number one:
“Go to class.”
“Let me tell you what’s going to happen to some of you,”
Joyner shouts. “You’re going to break up with your boyfriend
or your girlfriend, and all of a sudden, you think your life is
over! Well let me tell you something else: You’ve got to get over
your depression! You can’t use that as an excuse…because this
place can be unforgiving!”
Wide-eyed parents and students are cackling one moment
and nodding their heads solemnly the next, mesmerized by
a popular and locally famous ritual that Joyner performs in
orientation sessions seven times each summer. His tough-love
message for new students is just one weapon in an innovative
arsenal that East Carolina uses to keep them in college and get
them through graduation.
Retention and
graduation are two of the
hottest topics in higher
education these days,
as governing boards,
accrediting agencies,
and state and federal
lawmakers demand more
accountability and bang
for the buck from college
administrators. College
dropout rates are not
declining noticeably—and
are rising in some
cases—despite a wide
array of programs aimed
at keeping students enrolled.
The traditional standard of only four years in college is
mostly a relic; today’s measure of an acceptable completion
rate, except in the most elite institutions, is six years, and some
prominent education experts think the standard should be
eight or ten years.
Fall 2006
Keeping Them in College
East Carolina University’s efforts to improve retention and graduation rates
Assessing the problem is difficult because national
statistics on retention and graduation rates are unreliable.
Because students often transfer to other institutions, there is
no dependable way to track retention and graduation beyond
state borders. Rates for both vary wildly from the Ivy League
schools to lower-tier schools in public university systems.
But ECU, despite drawing heavily from a rural eastern
North Carolina population that includes sizeable numbers
of first-generation college students, has managed to hold its
own—and even excel in one area—when compared with peer
institutions within the state and nationally.
Its six-year graduation rate of 54 percent compares
favorably with other institutions in the University of North
Carolina system, except UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina
State University. Its freshman retention rate is six percentage
points better than those at 13 peer institutions across the
country. And it compares favorably to 85 “moderately
selective” public institutions nationally on both retention and
graduation rates for four, five and six years.
Most notable, however, is its success in retaining and
graduating African American students. Not only is the
percentage of ECU’s black student population higher than at
most public colleges in North Carolina, its six-year graduation
rate for blacks is nearly five percentage points higher than that
of the UNC system as a whole.
A study byThe Education Trust found that East Carolina
University’s six-year graduation rate of 60 percent for African
American students was nearly double that of “competitive”
doctoral-degree granting institutions in its peer group.
East Carolina University tries to involve new students like track and field athlete
Valeria Moore in as many non-classroom activities as possible in their first few
weeks on campus.
awareness of the
dropout problem is
leading to demands
for increased
accountability in
higher education
across the nation.
Photos by Tom Cogill for CrossTalk