April 8, 2009
New study seeks key to high Northwest graduation rate
A consultant from the Southern Regional Education Board was on the Northwest campus April 6-7 to interview University staff about policies and programs that consistently make the University a national leader in graduation rates.
Dr. Douglas Dunham, associate provost, said Dr. Paul Bradley of the Lake George, New York-based Bradley Group, is currently studying Northwest and 15 other institutions that have posted graduation rates above 50 percent while serving a significant number of students who qualify for needs-based federal financial aid. Students at the selected schools also have a median freshman SAT score of less than 1,050.
According to the SREB, the study, titled "The Road Less Taken: Focus on College Completion," seeks to shed light on why some baccalaureate and master's-level institutions are "beating the odds" in terms of student success.
When completed later this summer, Dunham said, the report will be released to lawmakers across the 16 states served by the SREB before being made available on the Web to the profiled institutions.
High levels of student success at Northwest have captured the attention of education officials and researchers nationwide for a number of years. In spring 2005, the University received a site visit from an American Association of State Colleges and Universities team interested in learning more about the institution's exceptionally high student retention, graduation and satisfaction rates.
That study, which included Northwest and eight other high-achieving schools, noted that the University boasted a second semester freshman return rate of 92 percent. In addition, at the time of the report, 75 percent of all freshmen were shown to have completed their first 24 credit hours with a grade-point average of 2.0 or higher.
In 2004, the University's Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award application stated that Northwest was the only moderately selectively institution in the state that exceeded the 75 percent freshman success target set by the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education.
More recently, Professor Philip Sullivan of De Montfort University in England conducted interviews and research at Northwest before issuing a report to that country's Higher Education Funding Council about the positive impact of a unique student worker career pathing program on classroom success and overall student satisfaction.
A matter of culture
According to Bev Schenkel, dean of enrollment management, Northwest's current graduation rate for students who attended college a maximum of six years is 62 percent. This includes students who start at Northwest then transfer and finish their degrees at another institution. The national average for other four-year public institutions with moderately selective admission requirements is 38 percent.
The six-year rate for students who spend their entire undergraduate career at Northwest is 52 percent, also well above the norm.
"I think the research indicates that our campus culture can be credited with the Northwest's high success rate," Schenkel said, "not only the Culture of Quality (the name of the University's long-established system of continuous process improvement) but our family atmosphere."
Other factors, Schenkel said, include a faculty focus on teaching and an institution-wide commitment to providing students with the support they need to progress academically.
"We have required advising for all students so that they connect with a faculty member within their department," she said. "There is a mentoring approach that happens each trimester. Also, the academic support programs we have in place through the Talent Development Center are pivotal, both through the tutoring program and supplemental instruction."
In addition, Northwest has developed a three-tiered orientation system that involves a summer campus experience for first-year students, a series of fall events and activities just before schools starts, and a trimester-long Freshman Seminar, which helps students avoid common lifestyle and time management pitfalls that can cause problems later on.
Schenkel said Northwest also designs individualized freshman course schedules that move students forward academically from where they are rather than imposing an arbitrary standard of where they ought to be.
The schedules take ACT scores, high school transcripts and other factors into consideration, so that a student who, for example, has relatively weak reading comprehension skills gets a chance to catch up before becoming discouraged and, perhaps, dropping out.
Focusing on outcomes
In general, the philosophy is to focus on outcomes -- that is, where students end up rather than where they begin. It is this developmental approach that, Schenkel said, is ultimately responsible for Northwest's high graduation rates.
"If you look at our end-of-course exams and major field tests, our students are doing very well relative to the national standards," she said. "When we bring in students who are at the national average on the ACT, but they go on to score in the 80 th percentile on their major-field exams, you know they have gained knowledge in those content areas."
Founded in 1948, the Southern Education Review Board is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to advance education and improve social and economic life across the region. Member states include Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
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