Graduation, Retention Rates on Upswing

By a number of key measures, things are looking up at Eastern Kentucky University.

Graduation rates? Up.

Freshman retention rate? Up.

Diversity among the student body? Up.

Average high school GPA and ACT scores for first-time freshmen? Up.

Little wonder the same can be said for excitement and enthusiasm on the Richmond campus, even at a time when overall enrollment is holding steady.

“We’re not yet where we want to be with graduation and retention rates, but we’re trending in the right direction,” said Dr. Elizabeth Wachtel, acting vice president for enrollment management, marketing and university relations. “It’s encouraging that all our hard work university-wide is starting to pay off, and it’s going to take continued diligence and hard work to continue to get positive results.”

One of the more dramatic jumps at EKU is in the four-year graduation rate, which is up from 19.7 percent a year ago to 23.5 percent this year, according to preliminary figures. For comparison, the four-year graduation rate for freshmen beginning in Fall 2000 was 9.4 percent. The rise in the four-year rate is especially significant, Wachtel said, because it shows students are graduating more quickly, thereby accumulating less debt.

The University’s five-year graduation rate is now 36.2 percent, up from 32.9 percent a year ago, and its six-year graduation rate is 39.1 percent, up from 37.5 percent a year ago.

Meanwhile, the freshman retention rate (measuring first-time freshmen continuing to their second fall term) stands at 69.6 percent, up from 64.1 percent just a year ago.

“While we obviously want to grow Eastern, these rates show that we are better serving our students,” Wachtel said.

The improvements stem from a “very intentional” approach to identify critical markers of success early in a student’s academic progress, Wachtel said. For example, this fall Academic Advising and the Registrar’s Office are working with faculty and Academic Readiness and Testing staff to conduct the first 4th Week Progress Report for students. The report, which replaces the former Early Alert system, notifies students in the fourth week of a term of satisfactory or unsatisfactory progress, attendance issues, or need for tutoring. Students are then referred to various faculty, advisers and tutoring centers based on referrals from faculty.

EKU’s Fall 2013 enrollment of 16,163 is running slightly behind the Fall 2012 total of 16,176. Areas of growth this fall include New Freshmen (up 5.3 percent), Graduate School (up 3.7 percent), Black or African-American (up 3.4 percent), Hispanic (up 6.9 percent). Enrollment in the University’s online courses, particularly at the graduate level, continues to increase, as Eastern makes more and more entire degree programs available online.

The projected number of high school graduates in Kentucky is expected to drop 4.5 percent next year before beginning a modest climb, thereby reducing the pool of traditional student prospects, but Wachtel identified several areas of potential enrollment growth in addition to continued improvement in the retention rate. These include international students, degree completers (through Project Graduate, the University is reaching out to those just shy of earning a baccalaureate degree), graduate programs, online programs, and low-income, high-ability students.

The overall enrollment numbers may have leveled off for now, but the quality of the average new Eastern student is increasing. For each of the past three years, Eastern has seen an increase in the average high school GPA and ACT composite scores for its new, first-time freshmen. For Fall 2013, the average GPA is 3.20 and the average ACT composite is 21.8.

So it’s no surprise that recipients of the top scholarships continue to increase in number as well. In fact, 22 new EKU students received the Kentucky Excellence Scholarship, up from 11 a year ago. Similarly, the number of new Kentucky Merit Scholarship recipients is up 24 percent.

“We are using the best practices in enrollment management on identifying and recruiting our students,” Wachtel said. Increasingly, that includes the use of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook as well as more face-to-face visits, either in the schools, at college fairs, or on the EKU campus.

If early signs are any indication, those efforts may pay off in enrollment gains in coming years. Wachtel said the number of admitted students is running well ahead of schedule and the “inquiry pool” for Fall 2014 has grown substantially.

Published on October 31, 2013