A university’s enrollment oversight usually involves a lot of numbers.
At Virginia Tech, that also includes a clear focus on what those numbers represent.
“Behind these numbers are people,” said Luisa Havens Gerardo, vice president of enrollment management. “We keep this in mind when it comes to our time to graduation, student retention and other important metrics, and at the center of everything that is Ut Prosim [That I May Serve] and our mission as a land-grant institution.
In recent years, this approach has been the basis of an enrollment strategy to increase the number of undergraduate students at the university to 30,000, reaching that threshold three years early. This strategy not only values supporting student success as the right thing to do, but considers it essential to plan enrollment in the most efficient way possible.
By monitoring incoming cohorts of undergraduate students for seven years, Virginia Tech can better predict graduating class sizes. This has a direct correlation to the capacity of different programs, the size of incoming cohorts, and the financial aid available for new students.
The importance of the interconnected nature of these issues was one of the main topics of discussion at the Board of Visitors meeting on 13-14 November.
Using factors such as student retention, persistence, and time to graduation as key elements in enrollment planning was something Havens Gerardo led when she joined Virginia Tech in 2017. And despite the past five years filled with challenges across the higher education landscape, Virginia Tech has remained stable in keeping students in school—92% of freshmen returning—and maintaining an average of a just under four years to complete an undergraduate degree.
“I’ve been in higher education for almost 30 years, and if you had told me that our benchmarks would remain this stable, I wouldn’t have invested my money on it,” said Havens Gerardo.
This stability has contributed to Virginia Tech’s rise in value and comes at a time when President Tim Sands launched a presidential initiative focused on creating better access and pricing for students. It also came as the university took the strategic step of welcoming an incoming class of more than 40% underrepresented minorities or underserved students.
“This success is not accidental. There has been a lot of effort from faculty, individual college management and central management to ensure that as we increase the proportion of students we also create scaffolding to be able to support them,” said Havens Gerardo.
A key part of providing adequate academic support has been looking at the full spectrum of student needs and realizing its interconnected nature with academic success.
“We work to provide holistic support. Wellness of all kinds,” said Rachel Holloway, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs. “The Student Affairs Residential Wellness Model is a novel approach to supporting social and emotional well-being, sense of belonging, and engagement. Part of a residential experience are the relationships and belonging that make a meaningful difference for students academically.
The new wellness model ties professional wellness staff and student leaders to student groups, rather than buildings, to reduce barriers to wellness services. Holloway said this effort aligns well with the goals of the educational advisers.
“All of this effort around engagement and well-being helps students persevere through tough times,” she said. “And we know that mental health issues are often very closely linked to academic success. They feed each other.
Kim Smith, vice provost at the student success initiative, said the new model not only gives students more ways to find faculty they resonate with, but also bolsters ongoing academic outreach efforts. the university. One such effort is the Early Academic Referral System (VT EARS), which helps connect academic advisors to students who might be struggling or missing classes.
“This [VT EARS] is just to make sure students don’t fall through the cracks,” Smith said. “We try to contact students and if they don’t respond within five days we would refer them to the Dean of Students’ office for assistance, which now has more connections to students due to the model of welfare.”
Providing adequate support to students during transition periods is also critical 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 change majors, and a formal leave policy has been developed to help better understand individual situations and stay in touch for facilitate a smooth return.
Reducing potential barriers to graduating on time is essential for every group of Virginia Tech students, but especially for those who need the money the most. Since most grants and aid programs are tied to a four- or five-year plan, anything that throws a student off course can lead to dire financial circumstances for the student. This can lead to further delay in getting students into their chosen field, increased debt load, and many lost opportunities at Virginia Tech.
“You 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. said Holloway. “So part of access and affordability is having enough support for students to graduate in a timely manner. And it’s the students who need the money the most who can benefit the most from a college degree. When they graduate, it transforms not only their lives, but those of their families.
Holloway said a program review is underway to ensure courses are available and offered at the best times during students’ college careers as well as required in the best sequences and combinations. There are also many ongoing discussions, including those about the rules related to progression to the degree.
“All policies and practices are on the table and open for discussion,” Holloway said. “We really have to make sure that we’re not asking students to achieve particular standards that we’re not willing and ready to help them achieve.”
These efforts come at a critical time for Virginia Tech, both nationally and regionally, according to Havens Gerardo. She said the output of high school graduates across the United States is expected to fall about 6% by 2026, while the number of Virginia graduates going out of state for college has risen to nearly 6%. 25% over the past decade.
“If we don’t pay attention to every decision point students make about coming or coming back to Virginia Tech, if we don’t recruit them and provide financial aid programs that support four years of enrollment , then we’re not going to be both ethical in our enrollment practices and efficient in pursuing our enrollment goals,” said Havens Gerardo.
“The only ethical and effective way for us to envision future growth is to pay attention to student throughput in addition to intake,” said Havens Gerardo.