Opposite to the expectations of West Virginia University administrators, more of last year's freshman class is coming back for their second year than previous classes.
"People didn't react to COVID and all the strange stuff that happened with the fall schedule of classes in the way that we thought," said Evan Widders, associate provost for undergraduate education at WVU. "We had thought that maybe students would want to stay home, take a year off, they wouldn't want to do online instruction so they wouldn't re-enroll, and none of those things happened."
According to University metrics, 82.6% of WVU's 2019 freshman class returned to campus this fall for their sophomore year. Compared to 2019 metrics, this number is a 3.3% increase in the retention rate, the percentage of freshman who return for their second year. Last year, the University reported a similar 3% increase from 2018 levels.
Total enrollment has declined 3% while first-time freshman enrollment is down 8%. Enrollment in completely online programs is up 17%.
Provost Maryanne Reed characterized this year's enrollment as "fairly stable" at a Faculty Senate meeting last month.
The increase in the retention rate can, at least in part, be attributed to the easing of some academic policies, said Widders.
Last year, WVU made a series of changes to improve student retention including decentralizing the required First Year Seminar course, providing additional advising for students who fail to register for classes and adding introductory chemistry and math courses. Students were also required to maintain a 2.0 GPA to remain enrolled.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this stricter suspension policy was lifted last spring and pass/fail grading was offered on an opt-in basis.
"There were enough variables out there we didn't think we could judge whether we'd be suspending people who deserved it or had just had a really difficult time due to the move to online instruction with COVID," Widders said.
Just over 200 freshman students had GPAs below a 2.0 and would've faced possible suspension last spring. After the appeals process, it's likely only half of these students would've been suspended, Widders said.
"You don't do these things in a vacuum, we do them in the middle of COVID," Widders said. "So, it's hard to know what we're responsible for and what COVID is responsible for... All we know is that we trend in the right direction and we've certainly been doing that."
For much of the past decade, WVU's retention has fluctuated around 80%. This is significantly lower than similarly-sized land grant institutions in the region. Over the last decade, Ohio State University regularly retains well over 90% of its freshman class while the University of Maryland has retained over 95% of freshmen. Pennsylvania State University also reported a retention rate around 93% in recent years.
Both the University of Arkansas and Kansas State University, colleges with similar demographics to WVU but that are not direct competitors for students, have seen steady year-to-year increases in their retention rates over the last five years.
UA reported a retention rate of 84.7% in 2020. This represents an increase of 2.3% from 2015 levels. This year, the retention rate at KSU was 87% for an increase of 4% over the last five years.
During the same period, WVU saw a V-shaped retention that went from 81.8% in 2015 to a low point at 75% in 2018 to 82.6% this year. The decline is attributed to a considerably more lenient academic suspension policy. WVU has seen increases in retention over the past two years after the implementation of a stricter suspension policy.
In a Faculty Senate meeting on Oct. 11, Reed announced the University will implement a three-year retention plan in November with the goal of raising retention and graduation rates. This plan was developed after consultation with Torch Star, an higher education consulting firm.
"Retention is everybody's problem," she said. "It's everybody's opportunity."
A survey of just over a thousand WVU upperclassmen conducted by Torch Star in 2019 found 60% of students felt academically prepared to enter college while in-state, first-generation and Pell Grant eligible students generally felt less prepared.
The study also found course scheduling, the quality of advising and adjusting to academic demands to be the most common challenges to students.
In addition to the three-year plan, the University is forming a committee of faculty and administrators focused on retention. This committee will address issues such as lowering the rate of students who do not complete courses, improving access to academic services and creating better pathways to graduation.
"Retention is both the right thing to do — to help our students stay in school — but it's also the smart thing to do in terms of cost savings," Reed said.
Widders will be coordinating the formation of the retention committee in his role as associate provost.
"It's unfortunate that every student who starts here doesn't want to finish here or isn't able to finish here," Widders said. "What we're really trying to do is make sure that every student who does want to finish here can finish here."
He said that in the future the University will be looking at student success rates in certain courses, methods to streamline academic advising and ways to retain students who don't get into their first choice of major. Improving the retention rate will continue to be a priority.
"You can't overestimate how important this is to the University," Widders said.