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Key Conference Themes: Serving Students and Promoting Sustainability

The NACUBO 2009 Annual Meeting coverage continues online with an article providing advice on student-enrollment strategies and some unusual ways to engage students and campuses in efforts to go green.

At the 2009 Annual Meeting in Boston, NACUBO served up a rich menu of educational topics, targeting higher education's priority content areas. The September online magazine includes comprehensive coverage of many meeting sessions. Following are some additional highlights from presentations in two important tracks: Serving the Student and Promoting Sustainability.

Solid Enrollment Strategies

Students who leave an institution before graduation represent lost revenue, and replacing them is costly. Clearly, it's in everyone's best interest to keep students enrolled. But, to develop effective strategies to increase retention rates, you need to understand which students stay, which leave, and why, stressed Daniel Rodas, vice president for human resources and planning at Long Island University (LIU), Greenvale, New York. He and Kathy Kurz, vice president, Scannell & Kurz, Pittsford, New York, elaborated on this idea in the session “The Bottom Line on Student Retention: Data-Driven Approaches That Work.”

Rodas and Kurz warned against relying on anecdotal evidence, rather than hard data; the former may lead to faulty conclusions and misdirected efforts to intervene. The speakers outlined Long Island University's multiyear approach to student retention, which included the following actions:

  • Established a multidisciplinary team to develop and review data and devise strategies. A key lesson: While retention is everyone's responsibility, someone-a champion-needs to be in charge.
  • Reviewed general enrollment trends; available data from national surveys, institutional surveys, and exit interviews; and existing retention initiatives. For example, LIU used a Web site maintained by Education Trust (www.collegeresults.org) to compare graduation rates of similar institutions based on national databases.
  • Commissioned new research and updated the old, building a cohort data file that included admissions statistics, financial aid information, academic area details, GPA results, and more. Tools such as table analysis and predictive modeling allowed the university to focus on developing specific strategies aimed at particular groups of students who had a greater risk of dropping out.

The result has been a number of strategies aimed at specific problems. For instance, to strengthen students' connection to campus, LIU has improved orientation programs, increased opportunities for on-campus employment, and linked courses with freshman interest groups. The institution has also developed an early warning system to identify students in academic difficulty.

Using pilot programs to test and refine strategies is vital, said Rodas, and establishing feedback loops and measureable goals is also critical.

Sustainability Times Two

A couple of concurrent sessions focused on institutions large and small that are considering carbon footprints, ecological issues, and other elements that must be incorporated into strategic sustainability plans.

Southeastern Sector

In “Building Sustainability in the Southeast,” presenters from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina; Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama; and the University of Florida (UF), Gainesville, shared their experiences with developing a climate action plan, engaging students through the curriculum, and creating a campuswide culture of sustainability.

One big question for Duke is what target date to set for becoming completely carbon neutral. That answer, in part, will depend on how much the university will be willing to pay to offset remaining emissions, noted Tavey Capps, director of environmental sustainability. A complicating factor is the lack of a great regional transportation system, said Capps. Currently, about 77 percent of Duke's 30,000 employees drive to work alone.

Commuter-related emissions are also a problem at Auburn University, where the vast majority of students live off campus and go home for lunch. “We're trying to curtail those extra trips by providing more on-campus eating options,” noted Lindy Biggs, Office of Sustainability Director—but that's only the start of what needs to happen. She's heading an initiative to train faculty to incorporate sustainability in their coursework so that more students develop an interest in the environment.

Among its many green efforts, UF aims to become a zero-waste campus by 2015. In addition to conducting campuswide audits of waste, students are actively engaged through recycling competitions and UF's TailGator Green Team, which in 2007 recaptured more than 26,000 pounds of waste associated with athletic events.

Responsible Decisions at Small Colleges

In another session focused on a particular segment of U.S. higher education, “Enhancing Sustainability at Small Colleges,” several institutions shared their sustainability stories. Among them were Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina; Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio; and relative newcomer Soka University of America, Aliso Viejo, California, accredited in 2005.

Eighty percent of Soka's 103-acre campus is surrounded by wilderness parkland, introducing particular needs for ecological sensitivity in new infrastructure. For its recent $73 million capital project, which includes a new academic building and multipurpose concert hall, Soka gathered all key players at the start—architect, design consultant, general contractor, and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) commissioning agent—to establish clear goals and to strategize where the institution could save money while incorporating as many green features as possible.

In one example, Soka created a holding area for 10,000 cubic yards of excess soil on campus that it could reuse as backfill. Stockpiling the soil not only saved $120,000 but also reduced carbon emissions associated with transporting it elsewhere, noted Archibald Asawa, Soka's vice president of finance and administration and chief financial officer.

One overarching takeaway from this session was that much can be accomplished with few resources as long as you have leadership, community commitment, and creativity to weave initiatives together.