* 50 percent of UTC freshmen drop below 2.75 GPA, losing their HOPE scholarship
* 31 percent of UTC freshmen don't make it to their sophomore year
* UTC had 1,441 freshmen in 2007-08, 2,096 in 2010-11
"How did studying your sociology book every day go?"
"Did you meet with your chemistry professor?"
That's how teacher Stacie Grisham starts the Mindset: Soaring to New Heights class at UTC, a class recommended for students whose grade point average has fallen below 2.0, which places them on academic probation.
It's a serious issue because when grades fall, students drop out. And when students drop out, everyone loses. The college loses money, both tuition and government funding.
At 69 percent, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has the lowest freshman retention rate among the University of Tennessee's three campuses.
UTC's rapid growth over the last decade is partly to blame, officials say. Between 2002 and 2008, the school's freshman class doubled from about 1,100 to more than 2,000 students.
But the retention rate -- the number of freshmen who return to UTC for their sophomore year -- fell from 72 percent in 2002 to 61 percent in 2008.
"I don't know that UTC necessarily had the infrastructure" to help freshmen succeed, said Fran Bender, assistant provost for student tetention and success.
UTC lacked places for students to gather, on-campus housing and programming to keep retention rates high, she said. The college created her position in 2008 to help address those problems.
Bender said 50 percent of freshmen fail to achieve the 2.75 GPA needed to retain the HOPE scholarship after the first year -- a quick slide to quitting college.
Along with bad grades and no HOPE, some freshmen simply can't handle the first year of school and all its distractions, preferring to skip classes so they can hang out with friends.
And it can happen to anyone, even those who got A's and B's in high school.
Trell Gardenhire, a 19-year-old McCallie School graduate, said his GPA fell to 1.9 at UTC because he missed important dates such as test days and deadlines for research papers.
"It's very easy to stop going to class," Gardenhire said. "It's easy getting in the routine of hanging out instead of going to class."
In 2008, UTC officials created the Freshman Academic Success Tracking initiative, designed to help freshmen become self-disciplined students.
In some ways, the school can become a surrogate parent, hovering over the students like a helicopter, making sure they're going to class, doing assignments and helping them study.
But schools must ask themselves, "Are we going to support students when they start here and do what we can to help them?" Bender said.
Instructors are asked to take roll every day. Students who miss class two times get an email from Bender. If they live on campus, their residence assistant talks to them face to face.
UTC also offers seminar-type courses and summer workshops in which students are taught how much studying is required, how to read a syllabus and other things students should know but don't necessarily practice, Bender said. The courses, however, are not required, even for students with low GPAs.
But money is also a factor. Many of the UTC initiatives are a result of the Complete College Tennessee Act, which allocates state money based in part on how many students move from the freshman to sophomore year and how many graduate.
The number of UTC students who accumulate 48 hours, for example, has increased from 1,441 in 2007-08 to 2,096 last school year. Institutions get credit for every student who completes 24, 48, or 72 credit hours during the academic year.
"What we are seeing is quite a significant increase of students who stay in school longer," said David Wright, who heads the Tennessee Higher Education Commission's policy and planning division.
And the retention rate of students who stayed in college -- at any public institution in the state -- also is higher, according to THEC figures, which track students who didn't necessarily return to the same institution, but went elsewhere. In that category, UTC has a 86 percent retention rate.
Despite UTC's improvements, Bender said the school is still not where officials want it to be.
"Ideally, we would have 80 percent of our students returning," she said.
Since 2006, for instance, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville has had freshman retention rates between 80 and 86 percent.
Gardenhire said the classes that focus on helping freshmen are working for him. This semester, he's making all A's, which he needs if he wants to become an orthodontist.
His classmate, 19-year-old Megan West, also said the initiatives are helping.
The Boyd-Buchanan graduate also skipped classes and had a hard time transitioning from the private Christian school to college. In high school, officials held students' hands, carefully leading them, she said.
"They reminded us about everything we had to do," she said. "In college, it's all up to you."
Now she keeps a calendar with all the important dates of when essays are due and tests are coming up.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...