Might student-to-student conversations be another step toward understanding student retention at WCU? That’s the idea behind LEAD 294: “Leadership, Research and Social Change,” a class offered in spring 2011 that had students conduct a semester-long qualitative research project on student retention.
The class, taught by Freya B. Kinner, an instructional developer in Coulter Faculty Commons, comprised 10 sophomores, juniors and seniors who were searching for information about why students choose WCU, what do they like about it and why do they stay.
The two-credit class was a crash course in statistics, experiment design and research methods. Conducting seven focus groups over the course of the semester, the students collected information from a total of 42 participants ranging in age from 18 to 40. While the sample is not representative of all WCU students, it’s a common approach for a qualitative study, said Kinner, who has worked at WCU for six years and has studied educational research and evaluation methodology at the doctoral level at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Affordability and the academic programs offered here were two common reasons students gave for choosing to attend WCU, learned the “provost scholars.” Other reasons that students gave for attending were the environment, proximity from home and religion. The Pride of the Mountains Marching Band attracted some students as members, and some were drawn to WCU because they had family members who were alumni.
The focus groups revealed that for many students, WCU is not a top-three choice. Some are persuaded to attend because of scholarship offers; others attend with the intention of doing well academically and transferring to another institution.
Many students enjoy the social aspect of campus, including residential life, Greek life, intramurals and club sports, and have made great friends and social connections here, the provost scholars reported. Still, there is a feeling of being separate from and unsupported by the community surrounding WCU.
The provost scholars made recommendations to increase retention based on focus group results. These included:
Speaking to that last point, “What we’re trying to say is, if we’re going to increase tuition, if we’re going to increase fees, I know we have some catch-up to do, but at the same time, some of this stuff we should be able to see. A lot of spending sometimes is behind the scenes,” said provost scholar Rakim Lash, a senior majoring in political science, speaking to faculty and staff at a presentation on the findings.
The student findings “confirm anecdotal information,” said Shawna Young, director for outreach and assessment in the Division of Student Affairs, who would like to see the provost scholar program continue. “Students collecting data from students about their university – there’s so much potential there,” Young said. In support of the project, student affairs staff helped coordinate focus groups and also supplied focus group food and drink.
According to Young, the university for the past several years has intentionally been “admitting students with retention in mind” – students who not only are an academic fit but also are interested in majors the university offers and “in the environment we have to offer,” Young said.
Enrollment growth, retention and graduation affect Western Carolina’s funding from the state, and a new performance model may put additional emphasis on retention and graduation, among other things. WCU’s fall 2012 freshman retention rate (the percentage of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who return for their sophomore year) was 73.67 percent, according to the WCU Office of Institutional Planning and Effectiveness. The retention rates for fall 2011 and fall 2010 were, respectively, 72.03 percent and 73.92 percent.
LEAD 294 is part of the curriculum for a minor in leadership through the Human Services Department in the College of Education and Allied Professions. Laura Cruz, director of the Coulter Faculty Commons, had the idea to offer the class, which was based on North Carolina A&T State University’s Wabash Provost Scholars Program. That program grew from A&T’s participation in a national study that examined how teaching and institutional structure, among other things, can affect student growth.
The Wabash Provost Scholars Program, which is housed in A&T’s Academy for Teaching and Learning and began in fall 2008, is a means of “engaging student voices in institutional assessment and inquiry,” according to the program’s website. A&T’s practice of student-led assessment helped get the attention of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, which in February 2012 named the university as an “example of good assessment practice.”
The A&T scholars are trained in conducting focus groups; collecting data, including following up with additional surveys and focus group sessions; analyzing data and preparing written reports, which they do with the help of faculty members; and making scholarly presentations related to their work. The focus groups concentrate on a different area each year; for example, a January 2011 report summarized focus sessions and gave recommendations on the topics of the intellectual climate.
WCU’s provost scholars admitted to facing some challenges in their work, including scheduling the focus groups on top of their own busy schedules and learning the intricacies of the research process, including collecting and analyzing data.
Remaining unbiased also proved a challenge. “Some of our struggles were taking our opinion out of everything that we were doing. We’re all into WCU, we love it, we love our experience here,” said provost scholar Carmen Rice, a junior majoring in recreational therapy. “It was kind of hard sitting in focus groups and listening to the negative things people had to say and actually just listening to them, not telling them how you could change that yourself.”
Successes ranked as gaining a better understanding of how their peers feel about WCU and discovering their own potential as leaders. “We learned that our abilities can affect more than simply the daily things that we do and actually the whole university,” Rice said.
Provost scholar Dustin Penny, also a junior studying recreational therapy, said a love of WCU motivated the group. “We did work really hard to get this, basically for the university. We want the university better because we care about the university. We’re just trying to promote positive change,” he said.
The provost scholars recommended extending the class to a two-semester endeavor and hope to give the next round of provost scholars some direction based on their own experience. Kinner hopes to invite the previous provost scholars to appear as guests in future classes and to have them present their research in an academic forum.
Kinner was thrilled with the class and its results. “Especially considering time constraints, I thought they did a fantastic job of stepping up to the plate,” said Kinner, for whom teaching the class was “an adventure.”
“I’ve never taught a class like this before. I learned a tremendous amount about teaching,” said Kinner, who is planning the class again for spring 2013.
By Jill Ingram