Third in a series of reflections on student life at West Texas A&M University.
Of all the issues challenging students in pursuit of undergraduate degrees in universities across the nation, the most important is retention. Retention measures the number of people who, after the first year, return to the university where they began studies for a second year. According to U.S. News, the highest retention rates in America for national universities are 99% and occur at MIT and the University of Chicago. Regional universities typically have lower retention rates. At West Texas A&M University, according to the same U.S. News study, retention is 67%. At too many public and private universities in our nation, retention rates are less than one in three.
According to a FOX Business study, money is the top reason students drop out of college. 42% of the students in our nation who leave college do so for financial reasons, 32% for family commitments, followed by the college of choice not being a good personal fit, lack of time, health reasons and job loss. No matter the causes, too many students start and don’t finish. When students borrow money to obtain a degree, at least they leave with the product their incurred debt was intended to procure. The real tragedy is when students borrow money and obtain no degree. Responsible universities will find ways to encourage completion.
The first action we take at WT is honesty and transparency about the cost of study, the opportunities for employment after graduation and the value of “connecting” on campus. For many students, especially new freshmen, college can be filled with expectations when walking through the campus gate for the first time. Some of those expectations are not met. Students experience “buyer’s remorse.” Millennials find that their preparation for college study is not sufficient. According to a Walton Family Foundation funded report, only 39% of the millennial population, born between 1981 and 1996, believed their high school preparation was sufficient. Too many universities put too much blame on primary and secondary educators for the challenges that college students face in the classroom. We believe meeting students and working diligently to help them get where they want to be is essential. This reality is exacerbated by over half of our nation’s citizens, 52%, believing that higher education is not headed in the right direction. Leadership honesty and the reinforcement of clear expectations are critical in student life.
Getting to know students personally before, during and after the admissions process is important. Clarity in communication and connections are crucial to WT as we “on-board” students. Faculty and staff building relationships through advising and teaching are all important aspects of connecting a student to any post-secondary place of study. Civitas Learning studied 55 colleges and universities and repeatedly found that academic and non-academic support structures increase the potential of students to finish their studies. They discovered how advisor meetings, Greek life, supplemental instruction, scholarships and tutoring play a significant role in increasing the likelihood that students will be retained.
Excellence in student life creates a “family-like” experience for students. The stronger this experience is, the more likely students will engage in and complete their studies. In all family experiences, keeping track of people and their activities builds a strong unit. This means that early warning signs of trouble for students should be tracked and intervention strategies should be part of the university experience. This, like a family structure, creates shared responsibility and interdependent accountability. Hundreds of student clubs and organizations at WT help sustain engagement and lead to a stronger academic experience. Since the diminishment of the university’s role in loco parentis, institutions have worked to avoid interaction with parents. This is unfortunate and not part of our collaborative relationship with parents, especially for traditional first-year students. Typically parents have a significant investment, and by this, we do not mean solely financial investment, but a complete emotional, intellectual and physical one. In student success, our collective goal is to nurture the student for their personal and professional benefit.
Persistence, closely related to retention, is action on the student’s part to stay in school. While it measures the student and their tenacity, retention focuses more on the institutional ability to help students finish. Students are changing. About one-third of the students enrolled in college overall are first-generation students. Also of interest is about one-third of all college students take at least one course online. These are remarkable shifts over the past few decades. Of particular interest at WT, students who might stop out of college for family or work-related requirements have the option to study online. Online enrollments provide them with another avenue to persist. As with retention, high persistence rates for university students demonstrate an intention to finish.
At WT, we know that engaged students, woven into the campus fabric, are more likely to be retained, which clearly benefits the institution as it marks an important legislative concern for universities. However, our service is what guides students to complete what they start, which would indicate a high persistence. Although these two measures of stick-to-it-ness are similar, they are not the same. At WT, we believe persistence represents the power of people to persevere and attain personal aspirations. That is our goal.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.
Mike Knox is the Vice President for Student Enrollment Engagement and Success at West Texas A&M University