To be healthy financially in this era of decreasing state funding, as well as watching students succeed, Fort Lewis College needs to attract students and keep them.
That is easier said than done.
FLC spends a lot of time and money – $1.5 million in 2014-15 – to encourage students to attend Colorado’s Campus in the Sky.
And on the good news front, FLC recently saw its retention rate rise from 60 to 64 percent, a 6.7 percent increase.
But that means 36 percent of students leave after their freshman year, and when the time for degree-granting comes around, the graduation rate has dropped to 40 percent within six years of matriculation.
The recruiting process
Improving retention rates starts with recruitment.
“In 2008, we raised our enrollment standards, and we did see an enrollment dip,” said FLC spokesman Mitch Davis. “Then from 2008 to 2011, we were also going through the economic recession, so it was kind of a one-two punch for those years. But we believe requiring better-prepared students has been helping our retention efforts.”
FLC confronts some unique challenges in attracting those well-prepared students.
“In general, for most colleges, a 50-mile radius is the sweet spot for recruiting students,” said Andy Burns, director of admissions. “But we don’t have a large population base within 50 miles, so we have to look regionally. Our average student comes from within a 240-mile radius, so places like Albuquerque, Phoenix and Flagstaff are in our Goldilocks zone.”
The college has also analyzed where students have come from historically and is increasing outreach in Oklahoma and California, he said.
Last year, the college contracted with Royall & Co. to extend its recruiting efforts, but not until early 2015, which is late in the recruiting season. The college spent about $200,000 with Royall and saw applications increase by 50 percent, so the incoming freshman class was up 4.5 percent. The estimated revenue from the Royall-recruited students is $1.4 million, and the Fort renewed the contract for this school year.
In previous years, the college has received about 800 applications by Nov. 1, Burns said. As of this week, they had received about 1,400, boding well for the 2016-17 freshman class. The college will closely track Royall recruits to see if their retention rates match those of students the college itself attracts.
Michele Peterson, associate vice president of finance and administration, said FLC offered $6.6 million in scholarships for the 2014-15 school year, which does not include scholarships offered through the foundation.
“It should be noted that scholarships are really a recruitment and a retention investment,” she said. “We offer scholarships to new students when they apply – about a third of the scholarship dollars go to new student scholarships – and the remainder of those scholarship dollars go to current students to help them continue in school.”
Why do they leave?
Before FLC can retain students, it has to understand why they leave.
“There are really several numbers you have to look at to get the whole picture,” said associate philosophy professor Justin McBrayer, who is the faculty representative to the FLC Board of Trustees. “The first is retention, which is students who return for their sophomore year. The others are persistence, which is students who come back for junior and senior years, and then graduation rates at four and six years.”
The college can’t change some of the reasons students don’t continue. More than half, 56 percent, leave because of personal or family issues or for medical reasons. And 10 percent leave because they change their academic interest to a major FLC doesn’t offer. But 25 percent leave because of financial difficulties, and another 9 percent depart because they’re struggling academically.
“In some respects, we’re at a significant disadvantage,” McBrayer said. “The average student at the (University of Colorado) Boulder arrives more academically prepared and wealthier than students at Fort Lewis. So we meet students where they are and deploy resources at their development level to best make them academically successful.”
“Looking at retention and graduation-specific programs and initiatives for 2014-15, the college spent about $600,000, with another $500,000 brought in and spent through grants,” Peterson said. “Not included in those numbers are external financial aid – federal, state, private loans, for example – and the services provided by college organizations such as the Native American Center, El Centro, the Counseling Center, the Leadership Center, etc.”
Those organizations impact retention, she said, but their missions are broader than just retention.
This year, FLC began a three-year pilot program called the Student Success Collaborative, based on a priority in the strategic plan to improve students’ out-of-classroom experience and focusing on advising and counseling. The goal is to catch students at the beginning of their academic difficulties to help them. Nine advisers are currently working within 17 majors and one with undeclared students.
“The SSC technology assesses each student’s risk for not completing based on 10 years’ worth of Fort Lewis College student data,” said Crystal Fankhauser, director of student success. “(It) tags students who have missed academic milestones (such as assignments and attendance) and assesses students’ skills and their applicability to different career paths.”
Another retention initiative, which will be a pilot program in 2016, is the freshman seminar, which McBrayer is helping design.
“We have to get students up and running academically as quickly as we can,” he said. “Some data has been developed that team-taught courses, specialized research projects and independent studies help with retention. Small, intimate classes where professors get involved in the long-term success of their students also help.”
The freshman seminar will take classes already taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty in different disciplines – including chemistry, business, psychology and philosophy – cap class sizes at 18 students and present them in a seminar mode and not a lecture mode.
“For example, my colleague Sarah Roberts-Cady will teach an intro to philosophy and get involved with them in their first semester,” McBrayer said. “She will meet them and their parents at Convocation, take them to one on-campus event and then take them to one off-campus event, which might be anything from a hike to a film. They’ll be engaged in an atypical way, and they’ll get to know one another, bond and become peers.”