Attainment isn’t something that just happens on a stage with gowns and embossed pieces of paper. It’s made out of one-on-one intensive academic counseling sessions. It’s built out of summer days spent acclimating to the rigor of postsecondary academic work. It’s about enrolling a diverse class of young students from a wide variety of backgrounds and making it our priority to support them every step of the way to graduation day.
Since its founding 100 years ago, Webster University (MO) has had a tradition of evolving to meet difficult challenges, and it’s in that pioneering spirit that we have worked over the last several years to build an integrated system of learning strategies classes, peer advising, and a free residential summer bridge program. The results speak for themselves: Our students are better supported and better prepared for rigorous academic work, and their boosted retention rates have put them on track to graduate at elevated rates.
A History of Innovation
Founded by the Sisters of Loretto in 1915 to offer women west of the Mississippi River unprecedented access to career- and service-focused bachelor’s degrees, what is now Webster University carries this same innovative spirit as we seek opportunities to meet the evolving needs of students across generations and geographies. These needs are changing as rapidly as our institution’s demographics.
In the 1960s, we welcomed men as students and became the first Catholic women’s college to transition to independent nonprofit, lay-governed status. In the 1970s, we added programs on military bases and established the first of our international residential campuses, making our student body even more diverse and inclusive.
For many of our undergraduates, however, their ability to achieve exceeds their financial capacity, social support, and/or academic preparedness. As a result, we have created a distinctive integrated system of supports that helps retain these students, enabling them to persist and attain degrees. Several of these efforts have shown trend-defying success.
A Growing Need
The U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and our own institutional effectiveness data sources confirm what we know about many of the students we welcome: The challenges of closing the educational gaps between rich and poor and of accommodating first-generation students are indeed difficult. Consider the following:
Thirty-five percent of Webster’s St. Louis undergraduates in 2013 were eligible for Pell Grants.
Seventy-three percent of all undergraduates received financial aid in 2013 (grants or scholarships from all sources).
Forty-one percent of our students worldwide describe themselves as white or Caucasian in 2013–14.
Twenty-seven percent of the students on our home campus in St. Louis identify as racial/ ethnic minorities.
Transfers from four-year institutions and community colleges are growing, and many undergrads enroll on a part-time basis.
A System for Defying the Trends
Like many colleges and universities today, we lend guidance to our students as they address the challenges of their life circumstances while seeking academic success. Our focal point for this endeavor is Webster’s Academic Resource Center, an integrated support center geared for student achievement.
The center offers academic counseling, tutoring, writing, and assistive technology support, along with services for students with disabilities, and resources for veterans. Connecting components of this system include default-prevention programs, a retention calling program, a new financial resource center, and English-language programs for Webster’s international students.
The Transitions and the Transitions Academic Prep (TAP) programs, which were created by the Academic Resource Center, best exemplify our models of integrated student support. Through these programs, students gain an understanding of successful college behaviors and a roadmap designed to help them thrive.
Transitions, created in 2009, serves students who are admitted with conditions typically assessed through at-risk indicators such as ACT scores or grade point averages, and who have completed 30 or fewer postsecondary semester hours.
Tailored to fit a student’s individual strengths and needs, Transitions provides academic counseling and peer tutoring, as well as help with learning strategies, organization skills, and time management. Required weekly sessions establish close relationships with peers and trusted adults.
Prior to implementing Transitions, Webster experienced a gap of 6 percent between the retention rates for conditionally admitted students versus those without conditions. Since 2009, that gap has narrowed to 1 percent.
Our success with Transitions helped us launch the Webster TAP program in 2011, which was initially created as a non-credit-bearing summer enrichment opportunity for students in the Transitions program. Today, its cohort size has doubled. It is free, residential, and now offers one academic credit through a course called Webster 101.
Most importantly, both programs have helped with retention rates. Consider the following average year-to-year retention rates for first-time, full-time degree-seeking freshmen students during 2011–13.
Transitions participants: 81.6 percent
Summer TAP participants: 85 percent
Non-Transitions/TAP participants: 78.8 percent
Building on Success
As Webster’s fall semester gears up and we prepare to welcome a new class of students—new to the university and in many cases first-generation students—we have already started to build support for them at home and at the university.
Over the summer, we welcomed TAP program participants for two weeks of intense orientation to Webster student life. Participants learned to access resources such as financial aid, student affairs, the Multicultural Center, and Emerson Library. They also explored diversity issues and transition issues, built vital bonds with their peers, and leveraged new additions to the TAP program, including critical-literacy writing workshops and financial literacy resources.
But the education works both ways: I meet one-on-one with each TAP student during monthly open office hours so I can learn about the ups and downs of their individual journeys and gain invaluable insights about their resilience and leadership.
We believe walking side-by-side with these students (and their families) dramatically improves students’ likelihood of successfully walking across a commencement stage as a Webster graduate, and that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.