Student success key to enrollment practices
Overseeing a university’s enrollment typically includes a lot of numbers.
At Virginia Tech, it also includes a clear focus on what those numbers represent.
“Behind those numbers are people,” said Luisa Havens Gerardo, vice provost of enrollment management. “We’re keeping that in mind in terms of looking at our time-to-degree, student retention, and other important measures, and at the center of all that is Ut Prosim [That I May Serve] and our mission as a land-grant institution.”
Over the past several years, this approach has been the foundation of an enrollment strategy to grow the university’s undergraduate student population to 30,000 — hitting that mark three years early. That strategy not only values supporting student success as the right thing to do but considers it critical to planning enrollment in the most effective manner possible.
By monitoring entering cohorts of undergraduate student through seven years, Virginia Tech can better forecast graduating class sizes. This has a direct correlation to the capacity of different programs, the size of entering cohorts, and the financial aid available to new students.
The importance of the interconnected nature of these issues was a main topic of discussion during the Board of Visitors’ meeting on Nov. 13-14.
Utilizing factors such as student retention, persistence, and time-to-degree as key inputs in enrollment planning was something Havens Gerardo spearheaded when she joined Virginia Tech in 2017. And despite the past five years being filled with challenges across the entire higher education landscape, Virginia Tech has remained stable in keeping students in school — 92 percent of first-year students return — and maintaining an undergraduate time-to-degree average of just under four years.
“I’ve been in higher education for almost 30 years, and if you told me our benchmarks would remain this stable, I would not have put my money on it,” Havens Gerardo said.
This stability has contributed to Virginia Tech’s rise in value and comes during a time which President Tim Sands has launched a presidential initiative focused on creating greater access and affordability for students. It also occurred while the university achieved the strategic milestone of welcoming an incoming class of more than 40 percent underrepresented minorities or underserved students.
“This achievement is not accidental. There has been a lot of effort from faculty, individual college leadership, and central leadership to make sure that as we increase the proportion of students, we’re also creating scaffolding to be able to support them,” Havens Gerardo said.
A key part of providing adequate academic support has been examining the full scope of student needs and realizing its interconnected nature to academic success.
“We work to provide holistic support. Well-being of every sort,” said Rachel Holloway, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs. “Student Affairs Residential Well-Being model is a new approach to support social and emotional well-being, a sense of belonging, and engagement. Part of a residential experience are the relationships and belonging that make a significant different for students academically.”
The new well-being model attaches professional well-being staff and student leaders to groups of students, rather than to buildings, to decrease barriers to wellness services. Holloway said this effort partners well with the goals of academic advisors.
“All of these efforts around engagement and well-being help students persist through tough times,” she said. “And we know mental health issues are often very closely tied to academic success. They feed one another.”
Kim Smith, vice provost for student success initiative, said the new model not only provides students more avenues for finding faculty they resonate with, but also bolsters the university’s ongoing academic intervention efforts. One of those efforts is the Early Academic Referral System (VT EARS), which helps connect academic advisors to students who might be struggling or missing class.
“It [VT EARS] is just to ensure students don’t fall between the cracks,” Smith said. “We try to contact students and if they didn’t respond in five days, we’d send it on to the Dean of Students Office for help, which now has more connections to the students due to the well-being model.”
Providing adequate support to students during periods of transition is also key to keeping students enrolled and on track toward graduation. In recent years, efforts have been made to increase the availability of academic advisors specifically qualified to help students switching majors, and an official leave of absence policy has been developed to help better understand individual situations and stay connected to facilitate a smooth return.
Reducing potential barriers to achieving degrees on time is critical for every group of Virginia Tech students, but especially those with the most financial need. With most grants and aid packages being tied to a four- or five-year plan, anything that knocks a student off course could result in the student being in a dire financial situation. This can result in a further delay in students entering their desired field, taking on increased debt, and many lost opportunities at Virginia Tech.
“We can’t expect a student who needs to work 20 or 30 hours a week to progress at the same rate as a student who doesn’t have to work.” Holloway said. “So part of access and affordability is having sufficient support so that students move to graduation in a timely manner. And it’s the students with the most financial need who may benefit most from a college degree. When they graduate, it transforms not only their lives, but the lives of their families.”
Holloway said an examination of curriculum is happening to ensure courses are available and offered at the best time during students’ academic careers as well as required in the best sequences and combinations. There are many ongoing discussions occurring as well, including those about the rules related to progress to degree.
“All policies and practices are on the table and open to discussion,” Holloway said. “We really have to make sure we are not asking students to hit particular standards that we’re not willing and ready to help them meet.”
These efforts come at a critical time for Virginia Tech, both from a national and regional perspective, according to Havens Gerardo. She said the production of high school graduates across the United States is expected to drop about six percent by 2026 while the number of Virginia graduates going out of the state for college has rose to almost 25 percent during the last decade.
“If we don’t pay attention to every decision point that students are making about coming or returning to Virginia Tech, if we’re not recruiting them and offering financial aid packages that support four years of enrollment, then we’re not going to be on one hand ethical in our enrollment practices and on the other hand efficient in the pursuit of our enrollment goals,” Havens Gerardo said.
“The only ethical and efficient way for us to even consider growth moving forward is by paying attention to the throughput of students in addition to the input,” Havens Gerardo said.