As classes start at Western Washington University, increasing retention is top of mind for the university’s administrative team.
Western is running a $2.2 million deficit this year after a 3% budget cut across the board last spring due to enrollment declines since the pandemic. In 2019, the university had 16,142 students enrolled — in 2022, there were only 14,747.
However, last year’s freshman class was the biggest in history. Early numbers show promising first-year enrollment this year, near the level of last year’s class of 3,223, Western Communications Director Jonathan Higgins said.
“That’s all a very encouraging development for us here,” Higgins said. But a big challenge for the university is now making sure those freshmen come back for a second year. Last year, the university reported that only 77.1% of freshman students from fall 2021 returned in fall 2022.
Junior Kenneth McKinney pulls a bolt of electricity from a Tesla Coil at the Physicists for Inclusion in STEM at their booth aiming to recruit other STEM students. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
To focus its retention efforts, Western merged two units this summer to create the Academic Advising & Student Achievement Center.
“The pandemic affected retention in ways that I think universities have not seen, ever,” Higgins said. “In particular, it hit students of color, first-generation students, students from underserved communities, quite hard because of different realities that they’re facing at home, economic challenges, all of this.”
“A lot of that is what’s informing a lot of these new programs we’re trying to scale throughout the university,” he added.
Sara Wilson, executive director of Student Success Initiatives, said the creation of the new Academic Advising & Student Achievement Center has been years in the making. The former Student Outreach Services and former Academic Advising Center overlapped in roles and responsibilities, and this merger allows for more capacity to focus on students who are more likely to drop out in their first year, Wilson said. The new center officially opened on Monday, Sept. 25.
Wilson said the top reasons students leave Western without completing their degree are financial reasons, mental health, lack of basic needs such as housing or food, academic struggles, or a lack of belonging at Western.
“There’s lots of places where this center and other parts of our unit and our division are really focused on that,” she said.
Students play volleyball on the lawn of Old Main, set up by the Campus Christian Fellowship. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Through the new center, Western is trying to increase student interactions with advising. Currently, first-year students have a mandatory one-time advising and registration appointment before they start their first term and another mandatory advising appointment if they've taken 105 credits and don’t have a major declared yet, but the university is hoping to move toward broader mandatory advising.
“The goal of the mandatory advising is we’re going to start smaller with ... some population of first-year students to really target them and focus on at least quarterly advising with them,” said Meagan Bryson, the director of the new Academic Advising & Student Achievement Center.
The university is also working on providing more support for key courses that students need to graduate.
Dozens of students mill through the Viking Union, stopping at booths for the dozens of clubs and organizations at Western Washington University. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
Wilson said during COVID-19, the university saw declines in performance in key entry-level courses like math, which are “critical to completing” general university requirements.
“We know that [students] need to get a good early start in those areas to be successful as they move into some of their upper-level classes,” Wilson said.
For example, a math support course (Math 109) for Math 112, is now a permanent class for students whose test scores are slightly below what's needed for 112 but who need to take the course.
“The goal with that is to really build in other support systems that we know are really helpful for students, in addition to other math support curriculum that we know is beneficial for them as they pursue future math courses,” Bryson said.
Western received $47.9 million from the state in April to construct a new Student Development & Success Center, to bring together services centered around recruitment and retention, Wilson said. Once built, the Academic Advising & Student Achievement Center will be located in this building.
Updated enrollment numbers will be available in October.