WVU is reporting its highest four-year graduation rate on record and its second highest freshman retention rate following investments in student success programming with a focus on purpose. (WVU Photo/Jennifer Shephard)

With investments in student success, WVU retention, graduation rates climb

A dual focus on purpose and student success programming is helping fuel improved retention and graduation rates at West Virginia University. This year, the University is seeing its second highest freshman retention in history — 81.4% — along with its highest four-year graduation rate on record, reflecting a jump of 14% during the past eight years.

“Given the difficulty of my classes, it can feel very daunting,” said Ethan Hamilton, an immunology and medical microbiology major from Connellsville, Pennsylvania. “The support I have found here at WVU has made a real difference.”

Long-standing student success programs and many units across campus are enhancing the overall student experience by customizing academic resources to fit each student’s interests, passions and goals, and by collaborating with the WVU Purpose Center, which officially launched in September 2022.

Purpose Center Director Whitney Godwin said such connections are helping students discover their strengths while creating well-rounded, relevant and meaningful experiences to help them learn, grow and continue on their path toward graduation and beyond.

“We are excited to expand our resources and outreach across campus to help students develop holistically as individuals, improving their academics, career development, health, well-being and social interactions,” Godwin said.

It’s support Hamilton appreciates. “Learning about my Maximizer strength has helped me not feel afraid of change and adapt to this academic rigor,” he said.

In addition to reaching thousands of students this fall by holding nearly 170 purpose-related workshops, the Center is integrating purpose work into units that help some of the University’s most vulnerable student populations.

First-Year Experience Director Rhonda Black saw an increase in retention and student GPAs after incorporating CliftonStrengths® training into her one-credit course designed for students on academic notice or probation.

“It’s amazing to see firsthand how students are using their strengths,” Black said. “As students establish connections between their unique abilities and their chosen major and career interests, they not only gain clarity in their aspirations, but also solidify their plans. The more students understand how they independently approach challenges and solve problems, the more they are showing higher levels of engagement, confidence and improvements in study and time management skills.”

On the academic side, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Maryanne Reed points to the Office of the Provost’s Academic Transformation priorities for the upswing in student success outcomes.

“We’re confident that our multipronged approach is working,” Reed said. “Investments in new student success programs, smart technologies, academic advising improvements, early intervention engagement, and campuswide partnerships are collectively helping students meet their academic performance benchmarks, stay in school and graduate in a timely manner.”

Recent data shows that more first-generation and male students are returning after their freshmen years to pursue their degrees, with each showing a 5% retention bump from 2021 to 2022. WVU has also seen a 3.3% increase in retention among students from historically marginalized backgrounds.

In addition, new academic initiatives that launched over the past year are already showing positive results, helping students on their academic journeys from start to finish.

The new REACH Center, which is supported in part by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, provides support and guidance to many first-time freshmen, transfers, first-generation and Pell-eligible students. Since opening its doors in September, the Center has worked with more than 6,000 undergraduates through targeted outreach, mentorships, success coaching and tutoring appointments. The site has also held more than 240 in-person visits where students access free loaner laptops, school supplies, textbook assistance and printing services.

Meanwhile, the Mountaineer Completion Grant Program is helping seniors whose financial circumstances have changed at the start of their final year of study. Thanks to funding support from the Maier Foundation, 155 students have received between $1,000 and $5,000 this semester to help them remove the financial barriers to completing their degree on time.

Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Evan Widders also attributes the 24/7 AI chatbot, Morgan, and the state-of-the-art Testing Center for helping the University “get smarter” with student interactions.

“These smart resources are meeting students where they are through text messaging and the latest technology, offering academic guidance in real-time, on their time,” Widders said. “And thanks to the Testing Center resources, we are also seeing an annual decline in academic integrity violations, leading to the 2022-23 academic year realizing record lows in students reported for academic dishonesty and repeat offenses.”

According to the University’s first director of advising, Joy Carr, recent shifts in academic advising are demonstrating improvements in the student’s advising experience, as well.

Carr explains the move for WVU toward a coordinated, data-driven advising model is rendering greater consistency in adviser training, data collection and assessment to better support students.

“Our efforts to improve standards and communications, unify processes and build community among advisers systemwide are helping students receive professional, accessible and empathetic guidance to chart their path toward graduation and beyond,” Carr said. “The shift also frees up faculty to focus more on student scholarship, mentorship and purpose work.”

President Gordon Gee said the full WVU experience — fueled by purpose, life-long learning, self-discovery and overcoming challenges — is what differentiates Mountaineers.

“Each of us plays an important role in helping our students succeed,” Gee said. “As purpose work continues to become part of the fabric of West Virginia University, so too will our focus on student success and retention. From interactions in the dining hall, to success coaching with a peer mentor to faculty interactions in the classroom, every interaction matters when we look at fulfilling each student’s journey and, in turn, increasing retention efforts. We are all part of the framework that nurtures the student experience.”

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