Early retention data sparks hope for WKU’s future

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Nicole Ziege

The first to second semester retention rate for fall 2018 first-time, first-year WKU students has increased by 4 percent since 2017, President Timothy Caboni announced last week.

Among low income first-time, first-year students, retention improved by 5 percent, and 5.2 percent among first generation first-time, first-year students. The retention of first-time, first-year underrepresented minority students increased by 7.8 percent. The numbers are preliminary and unofficial until the data report is released in March.

While Caboni said the numbers are liable to change in the coming days and weeks, he said the increases are a sign WKU is headed in the right direction.

“These are remarkable metrics and a testament that we can enable student success with the right mix of attention, energy and investment,” Caboni said in the email. “These results are due to the work of our entire community. We have much more to do, but this is terrific progress.

One of Caboni’s primary initiatives includes the WKU 10-year strategic plan, which was approved in August 2018 by the Board of Regents and focused on improving persistence and retention.

The plan included several retention initiatives, including more centralized advising and peer mentoring, which have revealed positive preliminary results in the retention rates of fall first-time, first-year freshmen enrolling in the spring semester.

Since the start of Caboni’s presidential tenure, WKU has introduced several retention initiatives and focuses, including the Intercultural Student Engagement Center and the Kelly M. Burch Institute for Transformative Practices in Higher Education. He said ISEC produced a 98-percent preliminary persistence rate from fall to spring.

The Kelly M. Burch Institute, an evidence-based initiative to improve student success, opened in April 2018 and produced a 96 percent first-to-second-semester retention rate through its retention project called Freshman Guided Pathway. The project focused on a group of 50 first-time, first-year freshmen as they started at WKU last fall.

As the students transitioned from high school to college, university employees at the institute provided answers to all of their college-based questions and provided the students with mentorship during their transitions. The students also completed study hours, reported back to the faculty and became eligible for earned scholarships.

Daniel Super, director of the Kelly M. Burch Institute, said he did not want to speak on the retention data released by Caboni because it will not be official until the retention data report is released.

However, Super said the project has shown significant promise through faculty engagement in the students’ lives and mentoring them through their transition into WKU. He said 48 of the 50 students in the project enrolled in spring semester courses, and the GPAs of the students involved in the project look positive moving forward into the spring.

“I want the reputation of WKU to be that we care so much for our students that parents sending their kids here, they can be rest assured knowing that we’re going to take care of them,” Super said. “Students feeling like they belong and like they have a safe place to land, it is a major factor of them staying in school.”

Brian Kuster, vice president for the Division of Enrollment and Student Experience, said the numbers look promising as the university moves forward, and much of that has to do with the retention initiatives and efforts pushed forward by Caboni.

Another initiative includes the centralization of student advising, which made way for the creation of the Academic Advising and Retention Center in Downing Student Union.

Kuster said part of the centralized advising included WKU faculty providing reports for their students’ fifth-week assessments. He said 93 percent of the faculty reported fifth-week assessments for the Fall 2018 semester, which provides insight into how students are doing in their classes.

“That allows us to reach out to those students and create an intervention with these students,” Kuster said. “I think everybody on the campus understands that retention is not just one person’s job.”

Another significant focus in Caboni’s strategic plan is diversity, equity and inclusion, which includes continuing to expand on-campus and study-abroad educational opportunities. Revealed at the 2019 Student Success Summit, persistence rates of students involved in study abroad have proven to help them graduate.

Ninety-four percent of students who studied abroad graduated across six-year graduation rates compared to 47 percent of non-study abroad students. 

Among Pell Grant-eligible students, 92 percent of students who studied abroad persisted to graduation compared to 36 percent of students who did not study abroad. For non-Pell Grant eligible-students, 95 percent of those who studied abroad graduated compared to 54 percent who did not.

Regarding underrepresented minority students, 90 percent who studied abroad graduated compared to 29 percent who did not. Also, 91 percent of first-generation students who studied abroad persisted to graduation compared to 39 percent who did not.

Caryn Lindsay, director of WKU’s Study Abroad and Global Learning, said study abroad helps students by promoting student engagement and providing important relationships between faculty and students. She said first-generation and low-income students benefit the most from study abroad opportunities.

“I’m excited because of how global learning is infused throughout the strategic plan,” Lindsay said. “I’m also excited to see more WKU students engage in more international study abroad opportunities.”

Nicole Ziege can be reached at 270-745- 6011 and [email protected] Follow Nicole Ziege on Twitter at @NicoleZiege.