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Student grades, retention slip at WCU

With the first full semester of pandemic instruction now in the books, preliminary numbers at Western Carolina University show dips in fall-to-spring retention and student grades compared to previous years. 

“We’re kind of playing without a playbook,” Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard Starnes said in an interview. “All of our statistical data is based on historical trends. So when you have a once-in-a-lifetime type of event such as the pandemic, it kind of throws all your assumptions out the window.”

Last year, 92.9 percent of freshmen who enrolled for the fall semester returned in the spring, and while statistics for the 2020-2021 school year won’t be final until mid-February, the figure has been fluctuating around the 88 percent mark since early December. Starnes said the decrease was disappointing, but expected. 

“At this point in time in the semester, we’ve been at 92 percent in the preceding years,” Starnes told the WCU Board of Trustees’ Academic Affairs and Personnel Committee Dec. 3. “That is concerning to me, but it is also something that stands to reason that with the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 we would see a softening.”

Despite the pandemic, WCU set a new enrollment record this fall, with the 12,243 students attending last fall representing a slight increase over the 12,167 who enrolled for the fall 2019 semester. However, the number of first-time, full-time freshmen actually fell significantly over the same timeframe, with the 1,780 who enrolled for fall 2020 representing a 14.5 percent dip from fall 2019. An all-time high retention rate and increase in graduate and distance learning students was responsible for the overall enrollment increase. 

WCU is also seeing more students struggle academically than had been the case in previous years. While no specific figures on student grades are yet available, Starnes told trustees that there were “significant numbers of students who were not achieving course standards by week eight.”

“Students are struggling,” he told trustees. “I think our faculty have been real dedicated, but we’re also trying to keep high standards too, so we’ll see more students this year go through academic action around probation, suspension — those kinds of things.”

Final statistics on student success last semester are delayed in part because the Faculty Senate voted 16-9 on Nov. 18 to allow students to request satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading for the fall semester, extending an option first approved for the spring semester. Under the policy, approved in response to a student-led petition, faculty members will provide traditional letter grades at the end of the semester, and students may either accept that grade for incorporation into their GPA or ask to be graded on the satisfactory/unsatisfactory scale instead. According to the Office of the Registrar website, students can submit requests for satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading through March 31. 

From conversations with faculty, Starnes understands that student performance has been “all over the map” this semester. 

“It seems like at this point in the fall semester, more things entered into individual student performance than would otherwise be the case,” he said in an interview. “Individual student health concerns, the health concerns of their families. Parents losing jobs. It’s almost analogous to the economic downturn. In 2008, ’09, ’10, we began to see a lot of students who were doing fine, and then the economic downturn hits and their performance lapses. What we often found was that was the result of family economic dynamics.”

WCU used a blend of face-to-face, online and hybrid instruction last semester in an effort to give students the benefit of a residential university education while taking precautions against COVID-19. Various calendar changes, activity restrictions and requirements such as mask wearing and social distancing also made the past semester much different than the typical experience. 

Since July 1, the university has reported 519 cases among students, employees and contractors, of which 474 are recovered and 45 are active. No deaths have been reported. Positivity rates for COVID-19 tests have wavered between 13.2 percent the week of Aug. 31 and 0.9 percent the week of Sept. 28. By comparison, Jackson County is now reporting a 19.7 percent positivity rate with 2,648 cases and 18 deaths since the pandemic began. 

The spring semester will begin on Mon­day, Jan. 25, two weeks later than normal. It will include an abbreviated midterm break and no spring break, and like the fall semester it will use a blend of face-to-face, online and hybrid course delivery. Students living in residence halls will be required to submit documentation of a negative COVID-19 test taken three to five days before leaving their permanent residence in order to move in. 

WCU updates its coronavirus dashboard Monday through Friday at www.wcu.edu/coronavirus/reporting.aspx

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