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Wednesday, 23 January 2013 00:00

WCU casts wide net to reel back freshmen dropouts

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fr wcustudentsWith more than 15,000 applications for just 1,500 freshman spots last year, Western Carolina University has no difficulty attracting students.

The harder part is getting them to stay.

More than a quarter of WCU’s freshman are expected to drop out or transfer to another university after their first year. Only half will ultimately go on to graduate from Cullowhee.

Retaining students has been a perennial problem for the university — during the past decade the number of students who have returned for a second year has hovered around 73 percent. It dropped as low as 66 percent in 2006, meaning one-third of the freshman class didn’t re-enroll the next year.

When compared with other state institutions, WCU can’t seem to keep its students. Appalachian State University retains about 87 percent of its freshman, and UNC-Asheville keeps around 80 percent. Leading the pack is UNC-Chapel Hill, which surpasses a 95 percent retention rate for freshman.

The numbers are nothing to ignore. Higher freshman dropout rates can spell trouble for any public institution: dragging down graduation rates, signaling problems within a school and potentially wasting public resources. WCU leaders have struggled to address its retention rate during the years, and now the issue has caught the eye of WCU’s new provost, Angela Brenton.

“Tuition only covers a fraction of a college degree — the rest comes from private donations and state tax dollars,” Brenton said. “When a student comes and leaves before receiving a degree, you can see a lot of dollars are spent before the goal was met.”

Many students counted in WCU’s dropout statistics are not actually “dropouts,” however, Brenton pointed out. Some transfer to other schools because WCU doesn’t have the degree they want, such as architecture or Latin. Others take a break to work or travel. Some local students spend their first year at WCU, living at home to save money while knocking out entry level courses, before transfering to a different school for the remainder of their college career.

In 2010, nearly 100 students transferred from WCU to other state institutions — that number had been as high as double in previous years. So a quarter to half of WCU’s so-called “freshman dropouts” actually continue their education at other state colleges. No data is kept for students who transferred out-of-state or to private schools.

Yet, there are those who simply can’t hack it, for financial, personal or academic reasons, and some just stay up all night playing video games in the dormitories instead of studying. Those are the ones Brenton doesn’t want to lose — and shouldn’t have to lose.

“If we admit somebody, it’s because we believe they can be successful,” Brenton said.

Since freshman are the most at-risk class for dropping out, that’s where WCU will put its energy, with a push to increase the freshman retention rate to 80 percent.

“We’re really pressing on a number of fronts,” Brenton said.

The school is developing a system for early warning indicators that will detect failing students well before semester grades are turned in so that some sort of intervention can be launched. WCU will also ramp up its counseling and support services for freshman.

Another strategy that’s shown promise is a summer crash course for freshmen before school begins. The program is a requisite for students who are on the cusp of WCU’s admission criteria. A tradeoff is made: if the potential students complete a summer college preparatory course, they are granted admission.

While on the lower-end of the admission spectrum, students who complete the summer course usually go on to do better than their cohorts. Brenton thinks it helps with the big adjustment of college.

“Sometimes it’s the first time kids have been away from home,” Brenton said. “(The summer program) lets them learn study habits before all the distractions.”

Boosting retention rates could prove even more critical under a new state funding formula being considered. It would shift funding among universities based on competitive factors like retention and graduation rates, especially in key subjects like engineering or health care, Brenton said.

One of the first defenses for poor retention rates is tougher admission standards in hopes of weeding out likely dropouts before they walk into the classroom. Several years ago, WCU began putting more emphasis on high school grade point average and the rigor of high school course work over standardized test scores like the SAT.

High school grades are more indicative of success at WCU than test scores, explained Phil Cauley, director of student recruitment and transitions. But even the best data only allows for an educated guess as to a student’s probability of graduation.

“You’re not a mind reader, but you can look at data and past performance to predict success,” Cauley said. “A test score will say if they could do it, but are they?”

Giving students activities that pique their interests, such as marching band, honors college, outdoors clubs or a campus job, can also encourage them to stick around Cullowhee, as well as study abroad trips and hands-on learning experiences.

“Students who get involved are much more likely to do better in the classroom, persist and graduate,” said Cauley. “Part of it is a matter of finding their niche.”

Extracurricular activities could be an answer to Cullowhee culture shock.

The majority of WCU’s freshman are from out of the region — only about one in five students come from the surrounding area. Wake and Mecklenburg counties (home to Raleigh and Charlotte) are the top two feeder counties for WCU. Some students can’t adapt to the rural setting of Cullowhee.

But the good news, Cauley added, is once a student shows he or she can hack it in Cullowhee for one year, it probably means that student will make it another few years, at least. On average, half the students who leave WCU do so after the first year. Another 10 percent usually leave before their junior year, and about half of the students in a given freshman class ultimately graduate from WCU.

“How well you start goes a long way in determining how well you’ll finish,” Cauley said. “Typically, if they make it over that first year, they’ve gotten over those humps and hurdles.”

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