By Curt Yeomans
After two years of gains, the retention-rate roller coaster at Clayton State University took a downward turn this year, according to university President Thomas K. Harden.
The University System of Georgia has not yet released official retention figures for this fall, but Harden has told his Clayton State family the number went down from last year. Last year's rate was 61.1 percent, marking the fourth time in eight years the rate was over 60 percent. The retention rate is the percentage of freshmen at a college or university, who return for their sophomore year.
Clayton State has one of the lowest retention rates among state universities, Harden said.
During his annual "State of the University" address on Thursday, Harden asked professors to meet with other faculty members to help raise the retention rate.
"In your departments, you need to have very serious discussions about how you can help improve the experience our freshmen have at Clayton State by finding ways to increase the level of personal interaction between students and teachers," said Harden.
Beginning with 2000, Clayton State's retention rate was on an upward trend, decreased in 2003, and started back up three years later.
The new drop is alarming to Harden since officials have been trying hard to raise the rate in recent years. A heavy emphasis has been on improving campus life, and offering tutoring programs to students.
Even so, Harden believes the rate may go up again, thanks to the opening of the university's first on-campus housing complex and Student Activities Center earlier this school year. Previously, all students lived off campus, and they did not have a dedicated recreation facility.
Harden said he hopes the university will have housing for sophomores by next fall.
While on-campus housing may help improve the retention rate, it is also one of five factors contributing to flat enrollment growth at the university, Harden said. Freshmen at Clayton State are required to live on campus during their first year, and that mandate is turning off some prospective students, the university's president added.
There are 6,043 students -- the same as last fall -- at Clayton State. Thirty percent of those pupils are seniors, while 25 percent are freshmen.
Harden defended the housing requirement, however, and said he still thinks the university made the right decision by having all freshmen live on campus. "We did it to make sure we have a better opportunity to interact with students and get them involved in campus life," he said.
Other factors contributing to a flat enrollment are a tightening of admissions standards three times; shrinking technology programs; and students struggling to find ways to pay for college, according to Harden.
He also said he has heard "anecdotal comments" suggesting "Clayton County issues," such as crime; voter apathy; adversarial politics, and the public school system's loss of accreditation are other factors limiting enrollment growth.
However, he later added, it could be an issue of recent growth leveling out.
"We grew for four years at a 9 percent clip," he said. "It couldn't go on forever."