- Arts & Life
- The Hub 2023
- 2024 Student Government Elections
– By Eric Jones –
Jessie Satovsky/Staff Illustrator
Jane Halpern knew Emory University was not the right fit soon after beginning her first semester in 2022.
“I was exceedingly unhappy,” Halpern said. “I wasn’t getting the support that I needed from the administration. There was zero chance that I was staying there.”
Halpern wanted a larger school with more camaraderie. She applied “virtually everywhere” to transfer out of Emory, including the University of Florida, University of Texas at Austin and the University of Virginia. Halpern accepted a transfer offer from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
She became part of the 3.8% of the 1,434 enrolled students who left the Emory College of Arts and Sciences after their first year, according to data from Associate Vice Provost for Institutional Research and Decision Support Justin Shepherd. At Oxford College, approximately 6.9% of the 429 students who enrolled also left after spring 2023.
Although Emory’s first-year retention rate has been consistently over 90% throughout the past decade, it remains below peer institutions’ retention rates, spurring conversation around how Emory can retain more students.
Emory College reported that 93.6%, 94.9% and 95.2% first-year students returned for their sophomore year in 2020, 2021 and 2022, respectively. Coincidingly, Oxford reported first-year retention rates of 95.5%, 95.1% and 95.1%. The 2023 first-year retention rate was 96.2% for Emory College and 93.11% for Oxford, according to Shepherd.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt University (Tenn.) reported first-year retention rates between 96% and 97% during the same period, while Washington University in St. Louis (Mo.) performed similarly, except for a 94.2% retention rate in 2020. This is higher than national trends: Approximately 76% of students who entered their first year at a college or university in the United States in fall 2021 returned the next year.
Additionally, Emory’s U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) ranking fell from No. 22 to No. 24 in September, dropping for the second year in a row. This came after the USNWR increased the weight of first-year retention rates from 4.4% to 5% in the ranking metrics.
According to the Office of Planning and Administration, Emory’s goal is to improve its first-year retention rate to rise to 97%, within the range of other highly selective peer institutions.
“We are not where what I would call our peer universities are in terms of students coming to Emory, and graduating from it,” University President Gregory Fenves told The Emory Wheel in September.
This has sparked questions about what is driving students to leave after their first year at Emory. In five former students’ conversations with the Wheel, most reported leaving to attend an institution with a specific academic program that is more highly ranked. Some students, such as Halpern, also expressed social concerns, pointing to struggles with fitting into the campus community and a lack of school spirit.
“I was trying to make myself fit into Emory because Emory was such a good school, but every aspect of it just wasn’t for me,” Halpern said.
Jonah Gleeman said he loved Emory. Planning to double major in film and media studies and business, he made a lot of “phenomenal” friends in his fraternity and felt a strong sense of community on campus.
However, while Gleeman enjoyed his experience in the film department, he said his peers did not seem as interested in film as he was. He also felt that the film department was too small.
Despite not having a film school, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies of Emory’s Film and Media Department Daniel Reynolds said that the Emory film and media department has grown significantly in recent years. There are currently around 150 majors across all undergraduate classes. Reynolds added that while prospective film and media students do not usually declare the major in their first year, the introduction level film classes have seen incredible popularity amongst first-year students.
“There’s a lot of enrollment on a year to year basis and our intro to film classes will teach three or four or five sections of them and they all fill up,” Reynolds said. “That’s the first class that people take as film students. It’s also focused on film studies, meaning like history, analysis, criticism, sort of a humanities-based approach to sort of looking at and understanding film.”
Gleeman decided to apply to the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts, one of the most prestigious film schools in the United States. USC was the only school he applied to as a transfer student. Gleeman thought that getting in would be a long shot, and if he was greeted with a rejection letter, he said he would have been happy staying at Emory.
However, when Gleeman received an admission offer, he said it was too hard to pass up. Although he felt like transferring was a sacrifice because of the community he left behind at Emory, Gleeman said his peers at USC are immensely interested in the film industry. He added that pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in writing for screen and television at USC’s film school has opened the door to a network of alumni that he believes will improve his career opportunities.
“The film program was not strong enough and I really wanted to move my career forward,” Gleeman said. “This gave me the best shot at doing that.”
In his 12 years at Emory, Reynolds said he has rarely seen film and media students transfer. While USC has been established as a prestigious “film production program for decades,” Reynolds mentioned how there is a large “difference in history and scale” between the two programs. With the Emory film and media department embedded in the liberal arts, many students majoring in film and media studies also pursue a degree in another discipline.
“I’ve really found a kind of sense of with a lot of students, whether they’re double majors or majoring in film and minoring something else or whatever, drawing their interests together and thinking about the other areas that they’re interested in, not just side by side with film, but kind of holding them both at the same time and thinking about film in the context of other areas of study,” Reynolds said. “The way in which you set up as liberal arts school is really conducive to that.”
Qishan Wang, who transferred to the University of Chicago in 2023 after their freshman year, expressed similar qualms about the film department at Oxford, adding that there are less chances to explore the industry at Oxford than there are in Atlanta.
“There’s a huge difference between studying at Emory College and studying at Oxford,” Wang said.
Oxford College Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Kristin Bonnie wrote that she is proud of having Oxford as a part of Emory, allowing for a unique dynamic in higher education in the United States.
“The Oxford-Emory experience is unlike any other in the country — an intimate, liberal arts start followed by a top-tier research university experience,” Bonnie wrote. “That said, it’s not for everybody, just as no single college or university is right for every student. Those who thrive at Oxford recognize that they truly can experience the best of both worlds. Oxford and Atlanta are different, and that’s the point.”
Rohan Patel, who transferred out of Emory in 2023 after his first year to study computer and data science at the University of Michigan, raised concerns about Emory’s computer science department. He said Emory mainly seemed focused on its pre-med and business students.
“It’s very well known for a limited number of programs,” Patel said. “If you’re not one of the pre-med or business or maybe political science, the program isn’t as strong as maybe you’d want it to be.”
Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Computer Science Vaidy Sunderam, who chairs the department, explained that Emory’s computer science program is not as developed since it is only five years old. Before 2018, the computer science department was part of the department of mathematics. Michigan’s computer science program, however, was founded in 1957.
Despite this, Sunderam, who has been a professor at Emory for 37 years, said Emory’s computer science department is expanding. The program has grown from 15 faculty members in the 2018-19 academic year to 23 faculty members in the 2022-23 academic year.
“There’s a lot of legacy that we are lacking, but that doesn’t mean that we are any less qualified or any less strong in the discipline,” Sunderam said. “But it does mean that we are small and does mean we are catching up, because at the same time that all of this is happening, the demand for computer science has also rapidly exploded.”
Sunderam added that studying computer science at Emory is beneficial because the subject is embedded in liberal arts to give students a “breadth of knowledge” and creative thinking skills, which students may not receive if they pursue a computer science degree in the context of engineering. This makes Emory graduates more marketable than engineering school graduates, according to Sunderam, who said the University should better promote this perspective.
“Emory provides a better all-around experience, especially with the liberal arts angle,” Sunderam said. “We are as competitive as possible at this point and certainly getting to be where nobody will want to leave Emory because of better resources elsewhere.”
However, pre-law students, including Halpern, also raised concerns about Emory’s focus on medicine and business.
“That’s the two sectors of Emory that thrive, do really well and succeed, network very well,” Halpern said. “I was having trouble networking there with pre-law. I was having trouble with the advisors. It was just not a big enough department for me.”
Neil Auguste transferred to Cornell University (N.Y.) in 2023 because he believed the institution would better prepare him for law school. He always planned to transfer to Cornell after applying in high school because he received an offer to attend the university after going to a different two- or four-year institution for his first year of college. He just had to meet Cornell’s academic requirements during his first year at Emory, which he spent on the Oxford campus.
Auguste said he had a lot of moments where he highly contemplated staying at Emory due to his positive experience on campus.
“I felt at home,” Auguste said. “I didn’t feel out of place. I really enjoyed that.”
However, Auguste stuck with his plan and ultimately decided to transfer because he wanted to go to a school with a designated pre-law track with more of a direct feed into law school. Cornell students can be directly admitted to Cornell’s law school following their undergraduate experience.
“It’s just my personal goals, where I want to end up in life, and I feel like Cornell is a little more suited to getting me there because of the pre-law program,” Auguste said.
Ben Crawford (24C), who is currently on the pre-law track and co-founded Emory’s chapter of Phi Alpha Delta, a pre-law fraternity, echoed the transfer students’ experiences. Crawford said he has thoroughly enjoyed his Emory experience but wishes there were more pre-law resources.
“I sympathize very much with those people who have transferred,” Crawford said. “It’s not just that Emory provides significantly more resources for pre-med students and business students. It’s that the pre-law resources they do provide are wholly inadequate.”
Crawford explained that Emory has one pre-law advisor for hundreds of students interested in law school. Emory College’s pre-health advising program, however, has an eight-person team and pre-health peer mentors. The program also works with a faculty advisory board of 11 members dedicated to discussing policies impacting Emory’s pre-health students.
While Crawford said he thinks very highly of Director of Pre-Law Advising Carol Riddock (14L), he added that students are not getting the support they need with her alone. Instead, Crawford said Emory should have more resources, such as hosting additional networking nights.
Riddock mentioned that since joining as Emory’s pre-law advisor in 2021, she has placed an emphasis on connecting students from different academic backgrounds, since law school draws students from a variety of academic interests.
“They know that because they’re all in different buildings, taking all different classes, they’re not all congregating in the same places as pre med and BBA students in some instances,” Riddock said. “Allowing this meeting to take place where they see each other or they’re meeting with recruiters from law schools, talking to alumni that share the same interest and had the same professors. It’s what I try to highlight each semester.”
Riddock added that there are roughly 300 to 360 students that have identified as pre-law, according to this year’s pre-law Listserv. There are roughly 450 students that receive emails from the pre-law advising office. However, these numbers are not definitive because students can decide if they are interested in law school at any time while at Emory or even after their graduation. Regardless of the number, Riddock said she is consistently looking for ways to best support her pre-law students.
“I’m always open to new ideas and continuing to have new events for pre-laws that are innovative,” Riddock said.
Branden Grimmett, Associate Dean of the Pathways Center and Vice Provost for Career and Professional Development, joined Emory in 2022 and ever since his arrival has been focused on the initiative of increasing professional opportunities for students with diverse academic interests through the Pathways Center, which was founded alongside his arrival. The Pathways Center, the new hub for professional development and networking experiences in Emory College, encompasses career and professional development, undergraduate research, experiential learning, national scholarships and fellowships and pre-health advising. The Center is expanding resources for students, including those with an interest in law school.
“Starting this spring, we’re taking 25 students to Washington, D.C., and Carol will be with us for our career trek to where we’ll be visiting cultural sites like the National Museum of African American HIstory and Culture,” Grimmett said. “We will also be going into places like King and Spalding, which is a very prominent law firm located right next to the White House. And so those students, sophomores through seniors, will be able to meet with our alumni working in the legal field and probably the city best known for being a lawyer.”
Grimmett added that there will be multiple career events in the Atlanta area this spring, including a law school fair and a government policy and international affairs career night at Atlanta City Hall, where students will be able to network with alumni across the legal field.
Although students mostly reported academic concerns, some also pointed to Emory’s social environment as motivation to transfer. Patel, a self-proclaimed “super big sports fan,” said he wanted to attend a school with more school spirit and a vibrant social life. Halpern expressed a similar sentiment, noting that she was disappointed in the “lack of student pride and unity” at Emory.
“The social atmosphere feels a little dull at times,” Patel said. “It seems like a lot of people there are guarded and kind of stay in smaller groups, whereas [at Michigan] I feel like there’s … a lot of interaction and that might just come with sports.”
Wang noted social concerns at Oxford as well, noting that the school’s location in Oxford, Ga. — which they called “the middle of nowhere” — makes it difficult to have fun off campus. Wang wanted to transfer since orientation at the beginning of their first semester, but said that it really “hit” them when they visited Boston over Thanksgiving break.
“I just loved Boston,” Wang said. “When I came back, I was like, ‘No, I need to get out of Oxford and to get out of Georgia. This is not my place.’”
Patel and Halpern both expressed that Emory clubs are highly exclusive, leaving Halpern feeling “gridlocked.” She explained that she had difficulties joining clubs, preventing her from growing in terms of her career and academics.
This cutthroat environment extended to the classroom, Halpern added. She felt like classes were overly competitive with her peers vying to “push [her] down” to increase their own academic performance.
“I didn’t need to be paying that much money to go to a school that I didn’t love,” Halpern said.
While students who leave for another institution are in the vast minority, the University does its due diligence on why students transfer, according to Dean of Students and Associate Vice President for Belonging, Engagement and Community Kristina Bethea Odejimi.
“Part of our work is learning more about how our University can better connect with students early to support them in finding the best option to meet their goals,” Odejimi wrote in an email to the Wheel.
In an interview with the Wheel last month, Emory College Dean Barbara Krauthamer said there is “really important work to be done” to increase the University’s retention rate. She explained that this work includes investing in the Pathways Center and helping faculty become more “intentionally” involved with students outside of the classroom.
Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Joanne Brzinski believes that the new general education requirements (GERs), which first went into place for the Class of 2027, will enhance the experience for first-year students. Among the new GERs is an experiential learning requirement, including research, an internship or study abroad, which Brzinski sees as valuable for undergraduates.
Brzinski added that some students seem unwilling to utilize resources, a perspective which she hopes can be reversed by destigmatizing the idea of getting academic help. Emory could also promote its academic coaching program more, Brzinski said.
“There is a sense among some students that if you utilize academic support resources, it’s because you’ve failed somehow,” Brzinski said. “That is actually a big barrier to getting students to utilize the resources.”
First-year students are happiest at Emory when they are connected, Odejimi wrote. As a result, Campus Life administration is encouraging students to engage with organizations and clubs from the start of their college career and continue to cultivate an inclusive environment. Additionally, Campus Life is working to expand its services, enhance its programs and individualize care resources, Odejimi added.
“At Emory, we want every student to be able to take full advantage of the extraordinary learning opportunities,” Odejimi wrote. “Students must feel welcome and that they belong.”
Associate Dean in the Office of Undergraduate Education Melissa Tarrant emphasized that although Emory is trying to improve its retention rate, there is not one clear solution.
“One of the reasons why we have such a broad campaign is the fact that we have to do lots of things to address retention because it isn’t like we have a problem in one area,” Tarrant said. “Part of it is a way in which students respond to their academic experience, part of it is the way in which they respond to their social experience, some of it is pressure from parents to move to higher ranked schools.”
While the focus on retention has largely been concerned with first-year students, it is important to focus on retention all four years, Tarrant said. In fall 2023, Emory College reported a four-year graduation rate of 82.1% and a six-year graduation rate of 91.8%, according to Shepherd. This falls in line with Emory’s four-year graduation rate in recent history, which has averaged around 82.5% since the Class of 2017’s graduation. Several peer institutions outperformed Emory, including Vanderbilt, which reported an 87.4% four-year graduation rate in 2023.
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Ravi Bellamkonda wrote in an email to the Wheel that the Undergraduate Council’s Retention Task Force is working to increase the four-year graduation rate and has plans to launch a student partnership committee to better support students. With the 2023 first-year retention rate increasing to 96.2%, Emory is taking steps in the right direction to reach Fenves’ goal of a consistent 97% first-year retention rate.
“While there will always be students who transfer elsewhere to pursue a major we don’t offer or to be closer to family — as well as others who transfer into Emory — we believe these efforts will help us achieve the President’s goal of 97% first-year retention and elevate the Emory experience for everyone,” Bellamkonda said. “It’s been inspiring to see leaders across the university come together to focus on promoting academic excellence, fostering a strong sense of community and belonging, and ensuring student well-being — not only to identify and assist those who may need support, but because it is the right thing to do for all our students.”