Recruit & Retain (Otterbein University)

Dollars and Sense

The data on students completing a college degree in six years is glum. The National Student Clearinghouse says graduation rates for students to earn either a two-year or a four-year degree in six years are declining — down to roughly 53 percent. And the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that fewer than three out of four students returned to the college or university in which they had enrolled their first year for a second year.

This is national data, across all student and institution types. For low-income, first-generation and students of color, the data is significantly worse.

At Otterbein University, a private Masters’ university located just outside of Columbus, OH, our first-year retention rate just jumped more than 3 percent to 81.1 percent. While we employ many best-practice interventions designed to enhance student success, we have historically struggled with student achievement gaps that have impacted our lowest income students, students of color and men. As a “College of Opportunity” that was founded on the premise of educating students who have been denied opportunity by others, it is important to note that Otterbein accepted women as students and faculty from our founding in 1847 and enrolled students of color before the Civil War; we have long understood that access is more than just an open door and that we needed to successfully support the students we admit.

Like many private universities with moderate endowments, we are unable to meet full demonstrated financial need. Because our data, consistent with national data, indicated that a student’s financial status was at least as important a factor in his or her success as academic preparation, Otterbein set out to redesign our financial aid program to meet a higher percentage of a student’s financial need. In other words, we put our money where our mouth was and invested in motivated students who needed additional financial support. Our first test was to provide more support to students from Columbus City Schools — the largest public school district in Ohio. The Columbus City School district is urban and financially challenged — more than half of all enrolled students are economically disadvantaged. We adopted a model that essentially closed the gap between the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and their state and federal need-based aid and federal loans. This is not a model that meets full need, but one that reduces the family’s out-of-pocket expenses to as close to the EFC as possible.

Not only did enrollment from the district jump significantly, but the retention rate of Columbus City Schools’ students increased from the mid-sixties to 82 percent. As expected, when we eliminated concerns about finances, and when we funded students so they could live on campus instead of forcing them to commute, students outperformed the academic indicators presented in their applications. Suddenly, the performance of Columbus City students was stronger than the first-year class as a whole. We saw similar increases in student success in students with a $0 EFC, in African-American students and in men.

Let’s be clear: money isn’t everything. These students need other support systems as well. They need faculty who are willing to get to know them, inspire them and support them. They need mentors and advocates who will make sure students take advantage of the life-changing opportunities available to them as college students. They need an inclusive community that will welcome them. At the same time, a campus can employ every best-practice retention strategy on the books and won’t get anywhere if they aren’t willing to devise a financial aid model that provides real support to the students that need it most. That means acknowledging that not every student generates revenue and committing to living our mission and values.

If more schools invested in “at-risk” students, we could change the national data on completion and student success. For these students, a college degree is so much more than just a credential; it is a life-changing opportunity. Education is still the key to social mobility for these students, and we must commit to providing it. Their future, and ours, depends on it.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Jefferson Blackburn-Smith is vice president of enrollment management at Otterbein University in Westerville, OH.

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