Retention Efforts Steer Students to Success

At 90%, the student retention rate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is higher than any other college at Iowa State University, and far exceeds the national average of 53.5%. A closer look reveals nearly 83% stay within the college – 79% is the next highest in-college retention rate by the College of Engineering at Iowa State.

These figures represent people – students with unique abilities, needs and dreams. Caring and dedicated departmental advisers, student services personnel and administrators work together to keep the college’s 4,400 undergraduates on the road to success.

“Retention really starts with recruitment,” says Andy Zehr, director of marketing and new student programs. “Marcie Fahn (’14 agricultural business, economics, and international agriculture, ’16 MS economics, sustainable agriculture) organizes our orientation programs. Breanna Wetzler communicates key information and resources. Beth Foreman (’12 Ph.D. agricultural and life sciences education) introduces students to peers, shows a successful student experience and provides critical research. And, I’m a resource for navigating students’ financial scenarios and helping direct resources.”

Zehr, and the rest of the new student programs crew, team up with Howard Tyler, assistant dean of student services; Elizabeth Martinez- Podolsky, minority liaison officer; David Ross, record analyst; and student services specialists Tim Carey, Charley Turner and Audrey Kennis to round out the college’s student services team.


While the college’s retention rate is the envy of peers, student services staff noticed recent data showed room for improvement. Specifically, the college retains urban, multicultural and female students at a comparatively lower rate.

Data also reveals a changing student demographic with females making up more than 50% of the student body and a 99% increase in multicultural students from 2010 to 2016. The college currently has 10% multicultural students.

Daniel J. Robison, the holder of the endowed deanship in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is moving forward with a plan to address student retention put together by former dean and Iowa State University president Wendy Wintersteen (’88 Ph.D. entomology).

“Retention is everyone’s job,” says Robison. “We owe it to every student who gains admission and everyone who cares about them to do everything in our power to help them succeed.”

Tyler says the main reasons students withdraw (either voluntarily or by dismissal due to low grade point averages) are because of medical, mental, family or financial crises. Iowa State data shows the best ways to support students battling these crises are through mentoring and tutoring.

“These students need us to be their advocate. It’s like being a parent or foster parent – it’s not all happy. We help when we can and show up when they need us, but we don’t always say yes. The students need to get their priorities straight, too,” says Tyler.


The college’s plan to close the achievement gap among urban, multicultural and female students is multifaceted.

To start, the college created the Leaders Enhancing Agriculture, Diversity, Inclusion and Trust (LEAD IT) Collective – a peer-to-peer educational program about cultural competency and a multicultural peer mentor program.

Next, CALS hired Kennis as a student retention coordinator. Tyler says she’s able to connect with students with many different backgrounds and life experiences.

“In my and Audrey’s role we have to inspire trust during a single interaction with a student. We have to make them feel comfortable to share things they wouldn’t otherwise so we can offer them the best service and support,” Tyler says.

After joining CALS, Kennis held listening sessions throughout the college, then collaborated with advisers and student service staff to reach out to students slated for dismissal.

“I invited 46 students to apply for a new program we’re calling Smart Steps. Sixteen accepted the invitation. The program provides one-on-one mentorship and free tutoring,” Kennis says.

Zachary Anderson (’19 animal ecology), an employee of the City of Muscatine, Iowa, was among the program’s first cohort.

“Getting that call from Audrey was amazing,” Anderson says. “I was so relieved. I had a really difficult semester struggling with financial issues, anxiety and depression. I expected not to be allowed back.”

Anderson says Kennis and his academic adviser John Burnett, student services specialist in natural resource ecology and management, held him accountable and provided emotional support. The college also provided financial aid.

“During my weekly meetings with John and three meetings a week with Audrey they checked in to make sure everything was going well,” Anderson says. “Audrey really cares. You may think you’re going to fail, but she’s like, ‘you’re not going fail me.’”


To further support student retention, the college amped up efforts to provide completion grants to students struggling to pay for their last semester.

“We are very fortunate to have donor support for these completion grants,” says Tyler. “These resources allow us to consider the individual student, and our administration empowers us to do the right thing.”

In one special initiative, Carey reviewed student records from the past 15 years searching for former students who were just inches away from graduation.

“Tim uncovered students who had completed all requirements, but were just a few hundred dollars short of paying their last U-Bill. And, he found students who left in good standing to handle a family crisis then never returned,” says Tyler. “In a lot of these cases we were able to offer a completion grant or reconsider graduation requirements to help propel these students across the finish line.”

CALS will continue to offer additional training for advisers and work to strengthen partnerships with student affairs professionals across the university to best support all students as they make their way to graduation.

Left: Howard Tyler, assistant dean for student services, leads the college’s efforts in student retention. He says departmental advisers, student services personnel and administrators all play essential roles in equipping students with the tools needed to graduate.

Above (Left): Audrey Kennis recently joined CALS as a student retention coordinator. She co-led a team in hosting a retention summit in March. The event brought together staff from across campus to review college priorities, data trends and strategies to address barriers to student success.

Above (Right): The retention rate in CALS is higher than any other college at Iowa State, and far exceeds the national average. And, more students like these new grads choose to stay within the college than any other college at Iowa State.