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Meg Flaherty works with a kid

Sophomore psychology major Meg Flaherty works with a student at Metcalf School, where she works part-time.

It takes a village: Why ISU retains so many students

Many freshmen fit in easily at Illinois State. They find their new best friend during their first week on campus. They join student groups, connect with professors, and don’t really miss home all that much.

That wasn’t Meg Flaherty.

The Chicago native and self-described homebody struggled her first year, mostly with the social side of college. She had good grades but was thinking about leaving Illinois State after her freshman year. When she walked into academic advisor Kelly Schoon’s office during her second semester, she was emotional.

Knowing Flaherty wanted to work with kids, Schoon hooked her up with a volunteer (and later paid) job helping students at ISU’s Metcalf laboratory school. She hoped it would help keep her at ISU—and it did.

“She opened up to me, comforted me. I felt like she cared about me more than just what classes I was taking,” said Flaherty, now a sophomore psychology major. “(The Metcalf job) broke me out of my shell and made me want to get more involved with other stuff.”

Flaherty was among the 81.3 percent of new students in fall 2013 who stayed for their second year. That “retention” rate, which has since risen to 81.5 percent, is the second-highest among public schools in Illinois—and one of President Dietz’s Top 10 Points of Pride. That achievement requires a team effort across campus, including advisors like Schoon, programming in the Division of Student Affairs, tutoring in the Julia N. Visor Academic Center, among others.

Meg works with kids

Flaherty’s academic advisor knew she wanted to work with kids, so she connected her with a job at Metcalf School.

A student who makes an academic or social connection to the University—or both—is likely to stay.

“Both academically and socially at Illinois State, we do an exceptional job of helping students find that community,” said Amelia Noel-Elkins, director of University College. “We stack up very well.”

ISU’s academic advisors within University College are a big part of that. New Redbirds are required to meet with advisors like Schoon who specialize in the unique challenges facing first-year students.

“Students get the personal attention of a smaller school,” Schoon said. In fact, students are encouraged to nominate those who made a difference in their first year for an Impact Award.

“It’s a large school, but it’s not to them,” she said.

Illinois State also runs several successful programs designed to retain Redbirds, including two that focus on first-generation, low income, or historically underrepresented students—TRiO and MASAI.

Programs like that help raise ISU’s retention rate for black and Hispanic students closer to the universitywide average, said Jonathan Rosenthal, associate provost for undergraduate education.

“That’s pretty extraordinary,” he said. “Any other university would love to have our stats.”
Other successful retention efforts include:

  • Visor Center, which recently expanded its tutoring services to Milner Library.
  • Project Success, a program required for students on academic probation.
  • First Year Learning in Communities (LinC) seminar, an 8-week one-credit course designed to assist incoming freshmen in their transition to the University.

Retention efforts begin before students even arrive on campus. The Office of Admissions prides itself on recruiting students who will succeed at ISU, Rosenthal said. That focus, along with retention programs, has driven Illinois State’s graduation rate up to 73.4 percent—among the Top 10 percent in the U.S.

“We recruit students who are going to graduate from Illinois State University,” Rosenthal said.

Flaherty will be one of those students. Now finishing her sophomore year, Flaherty is a leader in her new sorority (Alpha Gamma Delta) and is working in Psychology Professor Dawn McBride’s lab. And she’s still working part-time at Metcalf, helping kids at lunchtime and after school.

“She just needed that little push,” Schoon said. “I’m just happy that she’s here.”

Ryan Denham can be reached at