At Virginia Wesleyan College, the administration has been working hard to plan an attack to raise the retention rates at VWC. The issue of retention and persistence is one of the largest dilemmas facing higher education institutions. Retention is classified as the institution’s ability to keep students until graduation. More specifically, persistence is classified as the institution’s ability to encourage students to remain enrolled from year to year. Ethan Fields, the Village One Coordinator, and Megan Mesco, the Village Two Coordinator, both ODU graduate students in Higher Education Administration, explained the three factors that affect retention: finances, academic preparedness and campus engagement.
Affording higher education is an obstacle for most families across the United States. On average, tuition is rising at a rate of 6% a year. (Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep tuition increases below 4%.) Therefore, financing education for students is a major issue that is affecting retention rates for institutions across the country.
“The stress of not knowing if I would be able to come back to Wesleyan because the cost of tuition made my first semester more stressful,” said freshman Megan Edwards.
Unfortunately, the ability of families to make education affordable is an issue that colleges have little control over. Some families struggle to pay for higher education because the student may have chosen an institution that is too expensive, may have been unable to get additional loans, or does not have the resources to finance the education. A lot of times scholarships can help offset some of the cost, but money remains a defining factor whether someone remains at the same institution for all four years or not.
David Buckingham, the dean of student affairs and dean of enrollment services, has played a large role to make sure that our retention rate steadily progresses upward. Wesleyan has followed and will follow a strategic long term plan that hopes to tackle the issue of retention and persistence. Buckingham understands that paying for education is something that is not always easy for VWC’s students and families. Although, it is impossible for the college to help every family with this aspect of retention, the College is rolling out more programs to avoid losing successful students due to their inability to afford VWC. There are new programs to help make Wesleyan affordable for current high achieving second, third and fourth year students.
“For the past few years we have been trying to get students to come to VWC who have a good academic standing and for whom VWC is affordable,” said Buckingham. “But for those students whom private education is a real challenge we have really stepped up our efforts to make this place affordable. Looking primarily at those students who are achieving academic success.”
These programs include the Marlin Scholarship Fund and The Wesleyan Covenant for current high achieving students.
The second factor that influences retention is the students’ academic preparedness coming into college. It starts with Admissions which determines, based on a students SAT, AP scores and culmulative GPA, whether or not a student would be prepared to attend the institution. In general, most institutions have specific admissions strategies that would ideally attract a specific type of student that would succeed in the institutions academic environment.
“Enrollment has a formula that is pretty simple: recruitment and retention and retention actually begins with recruitment,” said Buckingham. “The stronger the entering class, the stronger your retention is. The students who are better prepared academically and financially retain at a much higher rate.”
Every student starts college with a different academic experience and preparedness, therefore the goal of the institution is to cultivate an academic standard for the freshmen class to shrink the range of preparedness. Research shows that first year students need extra support to have a successful transition from high school to college. Therefore, first year classes are commonly trying to acclimate freshmen students with the college, academics and resources.
However, sometimes academic success is directly correlated with factors outside of the classroom. Oftentimes, first year students struggle with managing new freedoms, being away from home and building new meaningful relationships. Jason Seward’s new mission as Dean of Freshman is to be on the front lines of first year retention rates. Seward believes that using all the resources, such as the Early Alert System, can positively impact the retention rate.
“As a small school one of the things we do well is talking to students about their plans and figuring out how best to match up a plan with their goals,” said Seward.
Seward also has retention interns Megan Mesco and Ethan Fields. They are focusing their efforts creating and organizing programs to get freshmen involved on campus, residence halls and engaged in the Wesleyan community. Fields is collecting data to better understand the current freshmen class in order to create solutions and strategies for Wesleyan’s own personal retention. Seward’s interns are also working to help identify at risk students with the Early Alert System to make available faculty support and additional resources.
Research shows that student engagement is a defining factor that affects retention. Statistically, students who became involved in the institution’s community and understood the identity of their school are more likely to remain at that institution.
“For a lot of students who know they want to be at a small, private, methodist, residential, liberal arts college–that’s easy” said Director of Residence Life McCarren Caputa. “But then there are students who have never thought about college and just ended up here and it’s those people we have to help them find a niche.”
“It has made really happy because I have met a diverse group of people that I wouldn’t have met if I stayed in my dorm room all day,” said Edwards. “Also, being engaged on campus I have been able to connect with a lot of professors, advisors and administrators here and that has given me a greater appreciation of the liberal arts.”
Virginia Wesleyan has been exploring how to foster an environment of engagement in and out of the classroom. As an institution Virginia Wesleyan College is fighting the “good” fight to stay above water as an institution without straying from its values as an institution. Virginia Wesleyan is not hesitant to be honest about our retention rate, it is something that admissions is not happy with. However, VWC has a whole faculty and staff committed to tackling retention from top to bottom.
Lastly, the key for students: They must take responsibility for their own retention.
“Retention from an administrative point-of-view has always seemed to be about strategic planning that is full of big words and objectives with most of the action being placed on the institution,” said Ethan Fields. “However, that does not always work, which is frustrating. I believe that true retention can be realized when the administrators inspire the students to take action themselves: to be that source of change and support not only for the individual, but for the campus community.”