The University of Southern Maine is getting a $1.6 million federal grant aimed at helping students stay in school and complete their degrees.

“This is a game changer,” USM President Theo Kalikow said Monday, when the grant was announced. “It will help us plug more students into campus life and complement that with experiential and off-campus learning opportunities so they can find their passions and earn a degree.”

USM is one of 33 colleges and universities nationwide, and the only one in Maine, to receive the grant.

The five-year grant through the U.S. Department of Education’s Stengthening Institutions Program will pay for a four-step program focused on increasing the retention rate of first-year students and the four-year graduation rate. Among the new efforts: providing advising and working closely with first-year students, increasing fieldwork opportunities, creating faculty development programs and expanding online tools to improve academic scheduling and student services.

USM’s first-year, full-time retention rate in fall 2012 was 64 percent, which is slightly below similar “peer” institutions, according to university spokesman Robert Caswell. The goal is to lift that to the mid-70s, which would bring it slightly ahead of peer institutions, he said. By comparison, the University of Maine at Orono had a retention rate of 78 percent.

The four-year graduation rate at USM was 9.7 percent. By comparison, the UMaine four-year graduation rate was 37 percent.

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