New institute to address retention rate, student success

Rebekah Alvey

A new operation at WKU will target issues of student success, retention and persistence to graduation to combat a recent decline in enrollment and graduation.

The creation of the Kelly M. Burch Institute for Transformative Practice in Higher Education, or the Burch Institute, was authorized by the Board of Regents during the Oct. 27 meeting. John Paul Blair, interim vice president for development and alumni relations, said the institute will focus on research in retention, persistence to graduation and overall student success.

“As a comprehensive institution, we need to do everything we can to get students to finish what they started,” Blair said. “Private philanthropy can help university investments to hold true to our mission.”

The institution will be funded by an endowment made by faculty member and former faculty regent, Barbara Burch and her husband Ken Burch. Blair said the gift honors the Burch’s late daughter Kelly Burch, who was also a student and former employee of WKU.

In the meeting, Burch said there are many people on campus who care about seeing students succeed. She said the institute will provide faculty, students and staff on campus with resources and support for success.

“It’s exciting to think about creating something that doesn’t have to be confined into just a single unit,” Burch said at the Board of Regents meeting.

Blair said the institute will address areas of high priority to the university. Drops in enrollment and graduation and their financial repercussions have been prominent issues in the past year.

According to a recent Herald article, the Oct. 27 Board of Regents meeting also addressed a 3 percent drop in enrollment which resulted in an approximately $2.3 million loss in tuition revenue for the fall semester.

The loss in revenue adds to the pre-existing $10 million budget deficit.

Provost David Lee has collaborated with the Burches on the formation of the institution. He said the institution fills a need for an open part of the university, across disciplines, to generate new ideas and solutions for problems in higher education.

“Let’s task people with being innovators, provocateurs, people who help us as a community think of innovative ways to solve problems,” Lee said.

Daniel Super will serve as director of the institute and Pam Petty will be senior adviser. Lee said Super and Petty will have primary responsibility over the institute and will bring in people as needed and hear ideas.

Blair said funds from the endowment cannot be accessed until next year. However, Lee said the institution would hopefully be set in motion Jan. 1.

While detailed goals haven’t been decided yet, Lee said the first item on the agenda would target student success. Retention and persistence to graduation are also included in the strategic planning process, which began on Oct. 9.

Lee said the institute will function independently of the strategic planning process but may be involved with implementing aspects of the strategic planning process.

When addressing barriers to student success, Lee said there are many aspects outside academics and the university. He said financial barriers are a primary concern for students attending WKU or receiving a degree.

Lee said the university is looking into changing the financial aid structure to provide more aid to a broader range of students. He said relatively small amounts of money are preventing students from persisting to graduation, which could be addressed by financial aid.

In comparison to institutions similar to WKU, Lee said the university’s retention rates and other measures of student success are comparable. However, with the current state of WKU and higher education, Lee said the rates are not good enough.

“We need to do better,” Lee said. “We need to do better because it is in the interest of our students to do better.”

Lee also attributed a need for change to the financial issues facing WKU.

Lee said WKU is already generating ideas on how to improve performance as well as mechanics of how to accomplish goals.

Lee said at one time WKU’s graduation rate was below 50 percent. He said at that time, many similar institutions had similar rates, which led to a collective sense that this was okay.

“What’s been good enough in the past isn’t good enough anymore,” Lee said.

The cost of higher education and student debt has increased overtime, which Lee said demands a greater performance from the university. He said it is “not acceptable” for a student to leave WKU today without a degree and extreme debt.

“We are challenged, partly by our own standards, but partly by outside constituencies to do better,” Lee said. “It’s a fair challenge.”

Reporter Rebekah Alvey can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].