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COLUMN: State a leader in addressing top challenge

By Tom Eppes

The cost of higher education is becoming an issue in the presidential campaign, with candidates generally agreeing on two points: High cost makes a college education inaccessible to lower-income Americans who need a diploma to advance up the economic ladder. And those who have access to loans are left with staggering debt. An estimated 8 million people are now in student loan default, and many more struggle each month to make payments.

A third problem doesn’t earn as much attention – the devastating effect of debt on students who drop out before earning a diploma, either because they were poorly prepared for college or ran headlong into health issues, family issues or another tough life experience. Their loans aren’t forgiven, but their lack of a diploma can have an enormous impact on their ability to make payments.

Is there an answer? Yes: A focused, all-hands-on-deck commitment to student success without reducing one bit of the rigor of a leading academic institution. Retention is a term universities use to measure student success, tracking their progress one semester at a time until graduation. A key marker for comparing student success at different universities is freshmen retention, which reports how many freshmen were still enrolled during the fall semester of their second year.

For the elite private universities who pride themselves on the number of applications rejected and the quality of students admitted, the freshmen retention rates are extraordinary. Columbia and Yale report 99 percent freshmen retention, and other “Ivies” hang close with 97-98 percent. Percentages are similar for the Honors College at the University of Mississippi (UM), which achieved 97.8 percent retention in the 2013-2014 year.

Viewed more broadly, the University of Mississippi’s overall retention rate doesn’t look as good, but it’s remarkable nonetheless. Ole Miss is the retention leader among the state’s public universities, setting an all-time record of 86.5 percent retention for the new 2015-16 academic year. That’s more than 10 points away from the elite private universities, but it’s an enormous achievement other public universities are sending representatives to Oxford to study.

How has Mississippi’s flagship university become a retention leader, even in that environment? As with any complex challenge, there is no single answer. But it starts with a passionate commitment from the top.

Student success requires a personal commitment to every single student, a difficult challenge in a large university but the best answer to improved retention, student success and better lives for more people.

Tom Eppes is chief communications officer at Ole Miss. Contact him at teppes@olemiss.edu.