Retention rates: are students abandoning ship?

Hamline administrators and former students share their perspectives on retention and the new census data, which reports that 10.7% of first-years left the university after the fall 2021 semester.

Lydia Meier, Senior Reporter

The Oracle has reported on this spring’s fresh wave of faculty and staff departures, and new census data indicates that students are leaving as well, more now than in years prior.

Administrators do see the current retention numbers as good considering the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hamline student body has been slowly but steadily declining since 2014, according to the Hamline Office of Institutional Effectiveness’ website.

The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated what those in higher education refer to as the demographic cliff: a projected, steep drop in college applicants in the mid 2020s. Partially due to the pandemic, 73.3% of fall 2019 first-years returned to Hamline in the fall of 2020, and 71% of fall 2020 first-years returned to Hamline in the fall of 2021.

In the fall of 2019, there were 2,045 undergraduate students at Hamline, which dropped to 1,925 in the fall of 2020. By the fall of 2021, the Hamline student body numbered 1,795. 

Now, the spring 2022 semester has summoned even fewer students back to Hamline, new census data reports. Area heads provided a report to faculty members that claimed Hamline currently has 1,304 undergraduate students. The census data also reports that 89.3% of this year’s first-years returned to Hamline for their second semester, the Office of Institutional Effectiveness reports.

Lucy Bowman, Jaden Halabi and Harper Jenny all entered Hamline in the fall of 2019, and are three of the many students who eventually transferred out.

In interviews with the Oracle, all three mention the pandemic as part of their reasons for transferring, with both Halabi and Jenny citing Hamline’s own response as part of their issue.

Jenny, who transferred to the University of Minnesota after the spring of 2020, mentions the pandemic as their final straw.

“The pandemic hit and I felt concern before spring break that felt like it wasn’t answered. Hamline bases itself on the concept of taking the lead but were the last ones to act in response to the pandemic. It was awful leaving my things at the dorm, going home for spring break, and then having to travel all the way back to get my things from their lack of communication,” Jenny said.

Halabi was also displeased with Hamline’s response to the pandemic. Although he met great people at Hamline and loved his classes, he left Hamline after the fall 2020 semester. Halabi’s main reason was Hamline’s tuition increase between the spring and fall of 2020, which the National Center for Education Statistics ( reports as a 5.5% increase.

“I wasn’t getting the education that I wanted through Zoom and the tuition increase was a real deal breaker. I want to make it clear that I loved Hamline, but I’m not going to go into more debt for an education that I wasn’t happy with,” Halabi said. 

He now studies public health at the University of Minnesota.

Hamline administrators are working on strategies to increase retention, with some being encouraged about this year’s numbers. 

Lisa Nordeen, who is Hamline’s Assistant Dean for Academic Success and Retention, feels that students have been unnerved by the past two years of hybrid education, but sees the new retention numbers positively.

“What I have seen this year is that despite the fact that we have had a pandemic that’s ongoing, and the challenges that have gone along with that, our numbers are actually pretty okay,” they said.

As a member of the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA) staff, Nordeen is involved in many ongoing strategies for student success and retention.

“What we’re working with in CASA here is to help students reengage,” they said. “When you create that student-centered environment, it’s just better for everybody.”

Part of CASA’s role is to meet with students to provide advising and academic support. From the feedback they received from students, CASA feels that many are overwhelmed with balancing responsibilities and managing their mental health.

Additionally, Nordeen is on the Early Alerts Committee, which brings representatives from across campus to create a support network for students who have alerts of concern submitted by faculty.

They also mentioned a strategic enrollment management plan that’s in front of the Board of Trustees. While Nordeen can’t talk specifics until it’s voted on, they said the plan includes consistent assessment of programs.

They encourage students who are struggling to ask for help.

“CASA is here to support students,” Nordeen said, adding that departments and programs all across campus want to engage with concerned students. 

Other administrators echo the sentiment, including Interim Provost Andy Rundquist and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) Marcela Kostihova. 

“We’re all interested in working in concert to provide holistic support,” Kostihova said.

While Nordeen works with staff across the university, Kostihova is addressing retention and student success rates with faculty, but she is not concerned with the retention numbers.

“I look, of course, at retention numbers, but I like to think less of the concept of retention, and more of the concept of student success,” she said. “The ultimate goal is to get the four-year completion rate to be as high as possible.” 

Currently, the National Center for Education Statistics ( has Hamline’s four-year completion rate at 55%. 

“There’s a lot of work that’s already happening organically in our classrooms,” Kostihova said, and mentioned the Expedited Program Review as a way that the CLA is aligning programs with what students want and need, as well as the CLA’s ongoing work to create onramps and offramps for students who want to change their major.

To keep her finger on the pulse of student opinion, Kostihova reads every teaching evaluation that is submitted at the end of a semester, as do department chairs and relevant committees. She also reviews every university COVID-19 survey and meets periodically with HUSC.

Another important feedback tool comes in the form of a brief survey for students who withdraw from Hamline University. Although Nordeen and Kostihova both note that many students don’t fill this out, those who do primarily mention financial difficulties, personal well-being and family responsibilities, many relating back to COVID-19.

Many students who have transferred out of Hamline in the last two years have done so because of the pandemic, and Nordeen sees the current rates positively because of these unprecedented circumstances.

A hallway in Giddens Learning Center (GLC) where students often study and meet remains more empty
than usual in recent semesters since moving to hybrid and online modalities. (Chetha Ny)

Although Halabi, Jenny and Bowman all mention COVID-19 as one of their reasons for transferring, none of the three singularly attribute their decision to the pandemic.

“I probably would’ve stayed [at Hamline] if there were more opportunities in my field,” Jenny said.

Initially, Jenny enjoyed the Hamline benefits of small class sizes and living on campus, however, they noted that eventually the small campus and programs felt limiting to them.

“If I’m spending twice as much on tuition compared to the University of Minnesota to attend Hamline, you would think that there would be twice as many opportunities there,” Jenny remarked. 

Bowman also left because Hamline didn’t have the major she was looking for. 

“Ultimately, being at a small school was not for me,” she said.

Regardless of the possible many causes, retention remains a topic Hamline administrators continue to find concrete solutions for.