By Teresa Turner
The number of freshmen at Western Michigan University increased 2.5 percent in the past year and the Lee Honors College had its largest class of first-year students in WMU’s history, with a 2.8 percent increase for fall of 2017.
However, WMU has seen nearly an 11 percent decrease in overall enrollment since fall of 2011, and professionals are looking into the reasons behind this immense change. The key question is this:
Why are students coming but leaving before graduating?
Turns out the answer is a combination of factors that include financial aid that dries up in later semesters, struggling international students who need advising but don’t seek it and a lack of engagement of students early in their college careers, according to a variety of sources.
Associate Provost for Enrollment Management Terrence Curran and his enrollment management team have been working on a plan that will run through 2020 to increase the retention rate and help students with financial planning. They are also trying to disperse scholarships more effectively and to give financial support to students who need help during their later years at WMU.
Curran believes that there is a problem with how students are informed about their financial needs and what they should do to prepare for college.
Curran says there is a cultural assumption that students should be taking 12 credits per semester when in fact they should be pushing for 15. Because of this, students have to take summer classes, which adds to their expenses.
Curran also says 35 percent of students who don’t return are seniors. One reason is because upperclass students pay a higher tuition rate, and those extra expenses, coupled with dwindling financial aid, mean students can no longer afford to finish what they started.
Even those select students who meet the toughest requirements and thus receive scholarships still have trouble affording college and its costs.
“Some students that receive full-ride scholarships are still having to pay $6,500 to $7,000 after graduation because of expenses not covered by scholarships, such as books, housing, food, etc,” Curran said.
WMU has also seen an increase in international students, but once they only have several semesters left until graduation, the lack of support from their home country could play a factor as to why they drop out. According to University Ombudsman Kathy Mitchell, home countries for international students can only pay for specific degrees.
“There are a lot of students coming in to ask for help, admitting to their advisors that they’re sinking,” says Mitchell. “They suck it up because of their culture and vulnerability.”
WMU students are also not required to go in and consult with their advisor. Thus, they may not be getting the advice on how to finish their degree.
“When you go off to college, you just want to prove to everybody you can do it on your own,” says Director of Academic Advising in the College of Arts and Sciences Kevin Knutson. “Then if you start failing a class and you keep falling behind, that’s going to change your graduation.”
Vice President for Student Affairs Diane Anderson says freshmen year is the most significant time for students to utilize WMU’s resources and get engaged in on-campus activities and other resources.
“We plan on educating first-year students about all the resources WMU has to offer and how they can continue to use them throughout their college career,” Anderson says. “It will definitely take several years for enrollment to increase, but we’ve noticed it and are working on it.”