Efforts to raise graduation rates and retain freshmen for their sophomore year are starting to pay off at Fort Lewis College.
The college’s Finish in Four emphasis has led to the rate of students scheduled to graduate in four years improving by 19 percent in 2016-17 over 2015-16. While that means only 25 percent of the students who started college four years ago will be marching to “Pomp and Circumstance,” the number jumps to 45 percent graduating in six years, an increase of almost 13 percent over the last school year.
To put those numbers in context, at Western State Colorado University, a similar school, 19 percent of students will graduate in two or four years, depending on the degree, and 36 percent will graduate within three or six years, according to College Factual.
FLC’s freshman retention rate increased 3.1 percent over the previous year, up to 66 percent.
“Retention is improving because of everyone’s efforts,” said Michele Peterson, assistant vice president of finance and administration. “The advising staff, the analytic abilities, the Success Collaborative that focuses on at-risk students, co-curricular activities – it’s hard to quantify everything that goes into it.”
FLC ramped up spending on retention when it added the Success Collaborative, which includes early intervention, tutoring and other support services. The current budget is $600,000.
And while the fall enrollment count was down 3.4 percent – in large part because of higher admission standards – enrollment for the 2017 spring semester is “within a whisper” of holding steady on 2016’s spring semester, FLC President Dene Thomas said.
Those higher standards may also be playing a part in retaining and graduating more students. The Colorado Department of Higher Education is mandating higher standards for the class entering college in 2019, but FLC decided to gradually begin increasing standards earlier, Provost Barbara Morris said. The Class of 2021 is the highest achieving class in the school’s history based on test scores and grade point averages.
The school is spending about $1.25 million this year to recruit students, Peterson said. Keeping them in school both into their sophomore year and through graduation means the investment is paying off.
Enrollment is becoming ever more key to the college’s financial stability. A decade ago, state funding accounted for about two-thirds of the college’s revenue. It has dropped to one-third post-recession, and while the governor’s budget, released in early November, shows a $20 million increase for higher education, the slightly-further-out prognosis is grim.
“There’s a belief around campus that the state is going to come in and save the day,” Peterson told the FLC Board of Trustees at its meeting Friday. “But as I’ve told you repeatedly over the last few years, the Colorado Futures Report shows that by 2020, the only thing the state will be able to afford is Medicaid, prisons and K-12 education.”
Peterson has been meeting with every department on campus to nail down the real numbers of what things cost, she said.
“An increase in enrollment will take time, and we need to figure out what needs to be done now to position the college for long-term sustainability,” Peterson said. “What happens if we don’t increase enrollment? What happens if we don’t increase non-resident tuition? What happens if we have continuing cuts in state funding? Those are a lot of ‘what-ifs,’ but we need to take a hard, honest look at our budget and what we need.”