The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities named Wayne State University the winner of its 2018 Project Degree Completion Award for the university’s improvements in student retention and graduation rates.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities named Wayne State University the winner of its 2018 Project Degree Completion Award for the university’s improvements in student retention and graduation rates.

Photo provided by Matthew Lockwood

Wayne State recognized for improving student retention and graduation rates

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published November 23, 2018

DETROIT — Wayne State University is being recognized for strides made in improving its student retention and graduation rates.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities named Wayne State University the winner of its 2018 Project Degree Completion Award during its annual meeting in New Orleans.

“We’re an institution that has a lot of support resources for students,” said Dawn Medley, Wayne State’s associate vice president of enrollment management. “We restructured our financial aid programs so over one-third of our incoming freshman class had zero out-of-pocket expense. I think students are responding to these changes, because our freshman class grew 15 percent over last year, which is huge. It’s our largest freshman cohort in the institution’s history.”

The annual Project Degree Completion Award identifies and honors institutions using strategies to increase retention and graduation and decrease achievement gaps. To improve graduation rates, Wayne State launched a student retention initiative in 2011 and invested more than $10 million in it during the next five years.

“What we’ve been doing differently is, pretty much, everything,” explained Monica Brockmire, the senior associate provost for student success. “One of the core elements is improving our academic advising. We hired 45 more academic advisers. We reallocated a lot of resources to do that. Our advising program is far more advanced than other universities. This provides professional development and career advising and allows us to reach out to students more.”

Wayne State University staff said the school’s new approach to student success has resulted in significant gains, with Wayne State’s graduation rate increasing from 26 percent to 47 percent over six years, adding that “gains have been particularly pronounced among first-generation, low-income and minority students.”

Initiatives adopted to improve its student experience included “improving the curriculum in general education courses, increasing support for faculty teaching development, bolstering support for underprepared students, establishing first-year experiences for new students and strengthening financial aid.”

Wayne State administrators said making the experience of being a student an easier one was an important part of these efforts.

“This might be things like putting the registrar and the financial aid office in the same location so students have those resources all together,” said Brockmire. “One thing we’ve streamlined is our advising platform, so it is now at a single location, whereas before, students might have had to visit different departments or talk to half a dozen people to ask about arranging their future.”

Brockmire also said Wayne State University is looking to see what areas of students’ academic workloads are slowing down their advancement toward a degree or are an undue burden on their time or financial means.

“On top of that, we really wanted to improve our ability to become a learning institution and improve our ability to monitor cohorts of students,” she added. “Each class that comes in, we follow them year over year and look at how they are behaving semester by semester, and by doing that, we try to identify any bottlenecks in the student experience. For about two years, we have been looking at all of this data and have gotten really good at adjusting our programs. … In addition to these changes, we really have shifted our financial aid strategies. We want those resources available to students at higher education levels.”

Brockmire said removing financial obstacles is one of the most significant steps the university has taken to make it easier for students to earn a degree.

“Students who have been out of the university for more than two years, we have a debt protection program — forgiving $500 of debt per semester they’ve been away, so long as they stay in good standing,” she said. “We really want them to have the opportunity to complete their education.”

“We created a student emergency fund where students can get up to $1,500 if they’ve exhausted their financial aid. This covers things like prescription costs, getting their water turned back on and more,” added Medley. “We have a food pantry on campus, and we have support for housing. We are not only trying to recruit more students, and have them improve their grades, but help those students be able to remain a successful student. We also waive the application fee for those who are first-generation college students.”

Brockmire said making these adjustments was imperative to Wayne State fulfilling its purpose as a university. She said the university has received positive feedback on its changes.

“We had to focus on this. In 2010, when we started these initiatives, graduation rates were too low and they kept falling. It was contrary to our mission, and it wasn’t the institution we wanted to be, and we wanted to get back on track,” Brockmire said. “We hear it regularly from student government, but each year, the juniors and seniors are talking about things they didn’t have as a freshman.”

Medley said university officials were pleased to see their efforts rewarded, but noted that they have to look at the achievement as a chance for further improvement.

“Receiving this award is some well-deserved recognition, but now that we have people’s attention, it means we have people paying attention, so we need to make further improvements and do them better and faster,” she said.

Brockmire said these tweaks and changes have all contributed to major improvements for students.

“It all adds up to changing the experience for thousands of students,” Brockmire remarked. “All universities have to continuously grow and change. Moving forward, we want to keep working on lowering education disparities between different groups. We really want to close that gap. We also want to add some curricular changes to further eliminate any possible impediments or slowdowns students might have to graduating.”