Mars Hill University in North Carolina was created to provide educational opportunities for students who otherwise wouldn’t have them. That was in 1856, and the institution has undergone a few name changes since then.

But the student population today at the rural liberal arts college is about 56 percent Pell-eligible, and about the same proportion of students are first-generation. “They’re getting to college not necessarily knowing what to do or how to get it to work,” said Jason Pierce, associate vice president for academic affairs and information services.

In 2012, the retention rate from the first to second year was 54 percent. About 12 to 15 percent of first-year students transferred, and the rest were no longer enrolled in higher education. “If they’re not passing to the second year, we’ve done them a disservice,” Pierce said. But if students get to the second year, the rate at which they stay through graduation at Mars Hill is quite high.

The institution’s president announced a goal to boost retention by 10 percent.

When officials conducted research to discover what problems were keeping students from persisting, they realized that the barriers included:

  • First-generation students questioned whether they had made the right choice by going to college.
  • Students lacked financial literacy.
  • Students did not understand the language of higher education.

To combat the problems they were seeing and encourage students to develop good habits, officials created the First Year Connections program. Freshmen in the program receive $3,000 grants on the condition that they take certain actions, such as meeting with their academic advisors, participating in workshops on financial literacy, getting help at the math and writing labs — all things they should be doing anyway, Pierce said.

“We have all sorts of programs to help them, and they stay away in droves,” Pierce said. First Year Connections forces students to take advantage of those programs.

To earn the grant, students must accumulate 1,500 points each semester, or a point for each dollar of grant money. They earn points for activities such as hearing a visiting speaker, keeping a reflection journal, attending a financial literacy course, and visiting the writing center. The points are not based on the time students spend on the activity. They are meant to measure the activities in qualitative rather than quantitative ways. “If you just clock in and clock out, you might not be benefiting,” Pierce said.

Some of the activities, such as keeping a reflection journal, might also be class assignments for credit.

Officials funded the program by reallocating money from institutional work study. Nationwide, 65 percent of students who are offered work study take it, and they complete 65 percent of the hours offered them. At Mars Hill, the figures are 85 percent and 85 percent, Pierce said. There wasn’t enough work for students to do, so many of them thought of their work-study jobs as places to do homework. They weren’t learning skills that would benefit them in the workforce.

To see whether the First Year Connections program was effective, eligible students were assigned at random to either work study or to the program. Because this is the first year the program has been implemented on a large scale, the data about its success are not complete. One early indicator that the grant program is having positive results is that students in it are more likely to register early than those in work study. They registered early at the same rate as students who were not eligible for the program because they did not have sufficient financial need. Those students are more likely to have parents who remind them to register.

Personal touch helps with retention

Officials at Mars Hill encourage faculty and staff members to connect with students in ways that boost retention, and they have put technological solutions in place to help with that. Parents love to hear that the classes are small and almost all the professors are full-time, so students can’t hide or get lost, Pierce said.

One way administrators encourage persistence is to discuss financial options with students. Sometimes students think they need to leave to get a job. Perhaps their parents lost their jobs, and the student needs to help. Sometimes they do need to leave, Pierce said.

But officials work with them to make sure they understand what their options are if they have any flexibility. They help students understand that they could make some money right now working at a big box store or they could make a lot more money in the future if they finish their degree, Pierce said.

Plus, faculty use an early alert system to get help for struggling students. And they report every student who is absent on the first day of class to the director of student persistence. If a student misses every first class, officials work quickly to find out whether the student is coming back. Sometimes the student decided not to return. But sometimes officials contact the student, and he says, “Oh, it’s this week?”

Some students don’t have access to email when they get home, and they forget when the first day of classes is, Pierce said. And some students think they have until the add deadline to return. In fact, some students who didn’t register in advance come back on the add deadline and add all their classes that day, Pierce said.

Rafter 360 addresses problem of high book costs

Mars Hill officials repeatedly heard from faculty that students did not have the books for their classes. They didn’t have the money to buy them. Even though the institution’s website and the admissions office informed students they needed money for books, the students often didn’t save it to have on hand for book purchases, Pierce said. For freshman-level math courses, instructors required students to purchase online access codes for materials that accompanied the books. Students who bought the books often used the trial access code that worked for four weeks, but they didn’t buy the permanent code and stopped doing their homework when the trial code ran out. The exam was usually in the fifth week. The students couldn’t pass the course without access to the materials and stopped showing up. It was too late to drop the course.

Many faculty members put copies of textbooks on reserve. But so few students were buying books that publishers began to refuse to send instructor copies, Pierce said.

Plus the bookstore wasn’t making money. Every year, the president and the business office discussed what to do about it. But they couldn’t shut it down. Many students didn’t have credit cards, so they couldn’t go online to buy their books. And among those who could buy books online, many freshman- and sophomore-level students didn’t understand that was an option, Pierce said.

Officials solved the problems with access to books by contracting with the Rafter 360 program, Pierce said. Rafter provides the books, and students return them at the end of the semester. Mars Hill officials rolled the cost of books into tuition so that students can use their financial aid to cover their books, and they pay up front. Students pay a flat-rate tuition if they register for 12 to 20 hours, so the cost of books does not influence how many hours they choose to take. Mars Hill raised tuition a small amount when it implemented the Rafter program, but the increase was significantly less than the cost students would have paid for books if they were purchasing them, Pierce said.

Instructors adopt the books the semester before they need them. They have until a certain date, and then the university has to pay a late fee to add the book.

The books are shipped to the Mars Hill bookstore, where staff members organize them and then prepare bags for the students based on their schedule. The students bring their ID to the bookstore and pick up the books. It takes less than five minutes, Pierce said. Rafter will also ship books directly to students if institution officials choose to have them delivered that way, he added.

At the end of the term, students must return the books. If they do not, they are charged for them. Very few students keep books, Pierce said. According to research nationally, only 2 to 3 percent of college textbooks are kept by students.

Email Jason Pierce at