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Keeping Them in College (fall 2006)
East Carolina University
ENROLLMENT at East Carolina University continues to grow, and efforts to improve retention and graduation rates are still producing measurable results. “We have not increased as much as we would have hoped, but to change those rates takes multiple years,” said Judy Bailey, executive director of enrollment management at ECU. “You would expect to see that over a four- or five-year span,” she added, noting that National CrossTalk’s article about ECU had been published just two years earlier, in fall 2006.
Bailey served as president of Northern Michigan University and Western Michigan University for a total of nine years, before establishing a consulting firm in 2007. “ECU hired me to give a broad overview, an assessment of what they needed to do in terms of enrollment management,” she explained.
Following Bailey’s report in May 2007, which recommended several changes in policy, she was asked to “pull together a holistic approach across the campus, and lead a campus conversation on strategic enrollment management,” she said. “Chancellor Ballard asked me to come and begin working with them on looking at a broader understanding of how we accommodate the kind of growth we are seeing.”
Bailey described the growth as “phenomenal,” and said that enrollment at ECU in fall 2008 was expected to be the largest ever, close to 27,000. “We are estimating that our first-time full-time freshmen will number around 4,700, compared to 4,222 last year,” she said.
The summer “tough love” sessions for incoming freshmen and their parents are still popular, boasting record attendance. An eighth session was added in summer 2008 to satisfy the demand. “It’s an outstanding program,” Bailey said. “It’s an academic as well as a social setting. They want to know that they will belong, and be a part of this exciting community. And of course the parents want to know about costs.” When the orientation is completed, each student has a schedule and an advisor.
ECU’s Academic Enrichment Center, which had just been established at the time of the 2006 article, has been expanded and renamed the Center for Academic Enrichment and Allied Health. “When the center was brand new, our mission was working with academic skill development and the pre-health and pre-law programs,” said Shelly Myers, director of the center.
“Over that last couple of years we found such a need in the pre-professional areas, and we found that we couldn’t do all the things in our original mission,” Myers said. In response, a new tutoring center was opened to satisfy the demand. “The Pirate Center (named for the school mascot) is a campus-wide service that was developed to take on that component—to help all students with their academic skills, and offer workshops in note-taking and test-taking, that kind of academic support.” A new director was hired to manage the Pirate Center, which began offering full-service tutoring in 2008.
Institutional involvement is critical to success, according to Kati Haycock, executive director of The Education Trust. “I think it’s fair to say that in the last couple of years there has been an increasing willingness on the part of leaders in higher education to assume some responsibility for improving student success,” she said, adding that the prevailing view still tends to blame student preparation for problems with retention and degree completion.
Haycock pointed out, however, that comparable institutions—serving the same types of students, in terms of preparation and program—do not reliably produce similar results. “You get very different graduation rates, even for institutions that serve the same types of students,” she said. “There’s a lot of finger pointing. Educational institutions at every level have wanted to make this about the students, or their parents, or preparation. But overwhelming boatloads of evidence shows that what institutions do matters hugely to student success. Institutions must recognize the value of their own contribution.”
ECU is a good example. “Their graduation rates have continued to climb, when you look at them over time,” Haycock said. “In 1999 they had a six-year rate of 50.2 percent; today it’s 56.4 percent, which is pretty substantial.” Comparable institutions have graduation rates ranging from 40 to 70 percent. “Where ECU drew our attention was for its success with African Americans,” Haycock said. “They had little or no gap between black and white students, and that is very unusual.”
Haycock does take issue with the idea that it should take six or more years to complete a degree. “There is a general belief that if we just lengthen the time to eight or ten years, the graduation data will look better,” she said. “Frankly, most parents are horrified that colleges are talking about six years. Most people are not saving enough money for six years. We are creeping longer and longer, and it’s not good for students. It is still true that the ones who are most likely to succeed are the ones who go full-time right out of high school.”
Regardless of whether students need six years or more to earn a degree, Shelly Myers is convinced that ECU’s outreach effort has yielded results. “Students are getting better service, in terms of the questions they have about academics,” she said. “Is that tied to retention? I would think so. The advisors that I work with here are so connected to their students. We follow up on grades, and we take note if faculty have a concern about a student. It’s much more of a personal touch, and I think that helps them in school. I really believe that we have made a difference to the students.”