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Helping students succeed

Data helped us understand why some students were dropping out. Collaboration helped us come up with a strategy to make a difference.

Two years ago, data showed that Dalhousie had a retention problem—about 18 per cent of our first-year students were “dropping out”; that’s about 350 students per year. While some student attrition is to be expected, Dal was performing below many of its Canadian counterparts.

Even more worrisome was that the students who were leaving had similar circumstances—many came from rural communities, were the first in their family to attend university or were financially constrained.

We immediately and collaboratively developed a strategy that would incite positive change. And like most things here at Dalhousie, it wasn’t something we could do alone. In this case, we worked with donors who have expressed a keen interest in ensuring students have every opportunity to succeed.

Businessman David Bissett helped to bring the OnTrack Program to Dal, complete with student advisors and mentors. The Joyce Family Foundation established a new bursary program. And the J&W Murphy Foundation set up residence bursaries to enable more students to live on-campus in their first year.

One of the final pieces—emergency funding—resonated with my wife and me. We remember well the anxiety that comes from needing a little help at critical times. This led us to establish the On Track Microbursary, whereby first- and second-year students in urgent financial need can receive up to $500. We gave $50,000, hoping that, collectively, faculty, staff, parents and others close to Dal would match our donation. The response has been incredible. As this magazine goes to print, we have exceeded that goal—more than $115,000 has been raised, for a total of $165,000.

I am so proud of the Dalhousie community and our partners. We are already seeing positive change in our retention percentage and that will only improve once the full strategy is in place. And while we used data analysis to guide our decision making and priority setting, we are fully aware that behind all the numbers are great people wanting to be the very best they can.