MU focuses on retention
HUNTINGTON -- A week ago, more than 1,500 students were awarded diplomas from Marshall University, a sign that despite the increasing cost of attending college a sizable number of students are sticking with the school and completing their degrees.
For higher education institutions, retaining students has become as much of a strategic priority to university officials as recruitment and tuition prices. In Marshall's case, it is applying two newer programs aimed at improving the percentage of students who return to classes from year to year and complete their degrees in a timely fashion, according to Marshall President Stephen Kopp.
One is aimed at tracking students' progress toward their degrees, while the other tries to help better match students with their aptitudes toward particular professions.
"The approach we've taken is a lot of what retention boils down to: Helping students identify where their aspirations are, what their passions are and lining that up with what they think they want to do and their performance," Kopp said during a recent meeting with The Herald-Dispatch editorial board. "We're making sure they're matched appropriately and that we're giving that feedback to them much earlier instead of waiting until they're juniors or seniors and deciding, 'Well, I don't want to do this.'"
The university currently has a freshman retention rate of 71 percent, meaning that percentage of freshman students from two years ago returned to Marshall for the academic year that just ended, according to the U.S. News and World Report. That was 4 percent increase from the year before. The freshman retention rate between the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters was 90 percent.
"It would be wonderful to say we have 100 percent retention," Kopp said. "In a perfect world, that is what we would want to see. When you get up to 90 percent, that's pretty darn good."
MU falls below norms
The most recent data from The Chronicle of Higher Education from 2010 showed 23.8 percent of Marshall graduates completed the requirements for their bachelor's degrees in four years, and 46.3 percent completed their degrees six years after beginning their tenure at the university.
The remaining 30 percent accounts for students who took classes part time, dropped out of college or whose collegiate outcome was otherwise "unknown," according to The Chronicle.
Statewide, 24.7 percent of student completed their degrees in four years, and 47.4 percent completed them in six.
West Virginia fell below the national average on both benchmarks. Nationally, 31.3 percent of students earned their degrees in four years and 56 percent finish in six years.
Kopp noted two key components that the university has put into action to ensure that once students enter Marshall, they are more likely to leave the university with a diploma rather than without one and likely a significant amount of personal debt.
The two initiatives Marshall has relied on most heavily to keep students are Degree Works, a progress-tracking tool for students and their advisors, and the Student Success Collaborative, initiated by the Education Advisory Board. The latter is a means by which the university can use predictive analysis to allow faculty to better advise students based on their academic strengths.
DegreeWorks was launched at the university in 2012. It allows advisors and students to monitor students' progress by tracking which courses they have taken and courses they still need to take to complete their degrees.
The program also gives students the ability to see what classes would be required if they decided to change their majors.
"It's very user friendly," said Kopp. "It's available to advisors and students, so they can tap right into it. The purpose of this is to have a prospective look, if you're thinking about changing your major, what's the impact going to be and will it delay your time to degree completion."
Student feedback has indicated DegreeWorks is very popular at the university, but Kopp said the university is taking that software-based approach one step farther by participating in the Student Success Collaborative.
Past used to predict
Through the collaborative, the university will be able to sort through historical data from its own students generate accurate risk assessments for each student at the institution, according to its website.
"We went back to the early 1990s, downloaded all of the information for Marshall University students for them," Kopp said. "They basically have taken this meta data set and helped us identify predictors for success or non-success."
The collaborative only is accessible to faculty and advisors now, but it eventually will be available for students.
It is especially beneficial for students who are pre-med, pre-law or aspire toward other graduate programs, who likely will have to take a set of core classes before being accepted into those programs, Kopp said. Their performances in those courses can be predictive of whether they will get into those programs or even be successful in them if they are accepted.
"There are certain trigger courses that, if you get a 'C' in it, your chance of actually gaining admission to a selective admission or professional graduate program go down precipitously," Kopp said. "The other aspect of this is, once we get folks on campus to understand the importance of midterm grades, using midterm grades as an early warning sign in key courses that students are not doing as well as they need to do to continue to pursue successfully the direction they want to go and either advise them to another major or tell them, 'You need to pick it up.'"
The biggest benefit of the Student Success Collaborative is the fact that the data used by Marshall is based on its own students.
"It's not a population-based data," Kopp said. "I thought that was a better indicator of what's going to work for us as opposed to taking data from other sources. It's proven to be the case."
Follow Reporter Lacie Pierson on Twitter, @LaciePiersonHD.
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