Students have been more likely to remain enrolled at their colleges and universities during the COVID-19 pandemic than move to other institutions, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
At Cleveland State University, that too has been the case. The four-year urban public university has not seen a mass exodus of its young undergraduates. A heavy commuter school, it makes sense that they wouldn’t be going anywhere, especially during a crisis.
At the same time, it would hard to ignore two significant trends working in the university’s favor during 2020. Its fall first- and second-year retention rates have been the best in its history. In fact, the past three cohorts have seen a rise from 70% to 77%. Over the past five years, retention for Hispanic and Latinx first- and second-year students has risen from 64% to 75%, while African-American students have seen a sharp increase from 53% to 68%.
What’s driven this turnaround?
“Identifying that we had an achievement gap was really important,” says Jonathan Wehner, vice president and dean of admissions. “A huge part of what drove our overall ability to raise the retention rate was looking at targeting our Hispanic and Latinx students and our Black and African-American students with some specific strategies. But I mean it when I say, the first part of that was naming that we had a problem.”
Facing that problem head on, Cleveland State has developed some very unique initiatives – including a 2-for-1 tuition deal – that has helped to boost those numbers. While it touts its urban affairs and nursing programs and its engineering and film schools, it also isn’t shy about saying it is the No. 1 public state university in Ohio for social and economic mobililty, according to U.S. News and World Report.
“For us, it’s always been about social mobility and return on investment,” Wehner says. “Even in a COVID environment, we really kind of maintained that advantage. We think we can hang our hat on being a great value. We have amazing-caliber programs at a really compelling cost to students.”
Safety first at Cleveland State
For in-state students, Cleveland State’s tuition hovers around $11,000. Almost all students (92%) are not housed within the 85-acre campus, though many do find apartments nearby. Of the 15,000-plus who attend, 70% receive need-based financial aid. Many students still live at home or with relatives.
There was concern about how those factors would affect the institution at the beginning of the pandemic and as Cleveland State began face-to-face instruction in the fall. The potential risk for those coming on and off campus and possibly exposing others to the virus was strong.
But the university has done well to mitigate potential spread by taking an aggressive approach on COVID protocols, including cleaning and distancing, and students have bought in.
“We took a really data-driven approach; we had every building mapped down to the square foot,” Wehner says. “We made sure that every class that we put students in had 10 square feet of space between them, not 6. Our students generally have been really well-behaved. What we found from our contact tracing, students aren’t getting it on campus.”
That assurance – along with the university utilizing every inch of space for instruction including gyms and basketball courts to spread out students – has allowed the learning to continue. It also has been one of several key elements that has kept Cleveland State’s campus on the radar for students from the metro area – those who attend and those who are interested.
There have been other factors, too, that have been critical in helping this university maintain its current cohort of students and keep its enrollment numbers steady compared to the rest of the country.
Looking in the mirror, making changes
Wehner says those not-so-positive numbers several years ago were a wakeup call for the university to focus on the fundamentals. He used a basketball analogy (which works well at a school that has been to multiple NCAA Tournaments) – Don’t get your feet crossed when playing – to describe just how intent Cleveland State was on sticking to the basics to raise those rates.
The first step was to implement an early warning system for at-risk students called Starfish, which is used by more than 500 higher education institutions.
“As soon as a student misses two classes in a row or is having some grade challenges, it can raise a flag,” Wehner says. “That allows our advisors to target their efforts [before midterms].”
Strongly encouraged by Cleveland State’s president, provost and its Board of Trustees, 90% of faculty embraced using it.
“We had cheerleaders at the top of the organization really emphasizing how important this effort was,” Wehner says. “And our faculty stepped up and started using the system. It made a difference.”
The next step was introducing graduation and success coaches who could assist with low-income, first-generation and minority students. Those coaches served as mentors to build trust with students and provide resources when they needed them.
“Sometimes students are scared to ask for help, and the bureaucracy of higher education is so opaque they just can’t fight through it and don’t know where to go,” Wehner says. “What we’ve seen is a huge improvement [in early results] in the first- and second-year retention among the students that are receiving coaching. In fact, it’s better than our overall retention rate.”
The third step was providing assistance programs to those in need. One of those is a partnership with local corporation Parker Hannifin that funds students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to be able to stay on campus in a living, learning community. Those students receive the same coaching along with a set of wraparound services.
“These are probably some of our most systematically disadvantaged students in terms of the public school system in the city,” Wehner says. “They are likely many of our lowest-income and most at-risk students.”
Though it is a small sample size, of the 30 students who have taken part in the initiative, all 30 are still enrolled at Cleveland State this fall.
One of the other ideas that gained traction quickly was floating a 2-for-1 tuition idea for students enrolling and entering Cleveland State.
“As we were going through spring, and as COVID was starting to hit, we were starting to hear students were going to defer college,” he says. “We said, what can we do to try to incentivize these students to get to started?”
Here’s the deal: If a student attends Cleveland State, earns 12 credits and achieves a 2.75 grade-point average in the first semester, the cost in the difference between the financial aid package and tuition of the spring semester will be covered by the university.
It has been so successful that CSU is going to offer it in the fall of 2021 too with one caveat:
“We’re going to change the GPA a little bit,” Wehner says. “These kids now have done remote learning long enough. They know the drill. They can get a B average. So, we’re going to raise it up.”
As to the uniqueness of the offer, he says: “We’ve heard of some financial aid incentives, but we haven’t heard of anyone doing it quite the way that we’re doing it – tying it to that success in a student’s first semester. We don’t want you to just come in and slack off. We want you to be successful.”
Looking back on what’s worked
One obvious hurdle for most institutions heading into the winter months is how COVID-19 may affect scheduling and instruction. Wehner says he is confident Cleveland State can deliver the same quality of coursework remotely to meet the high expectations of students. In surveys done by the university, he says many upperclassmen have preferred virtual learning over in-person instruction because of the flexibility it affords.
No matter what, Wehner says the university will continue to try to meet the needs of students, parents and faculty.
“Cleveland State does a really good job at taking a deep breath and listening, trying to listen to our students and trying to listen to their parents,” he says. “That doesn’t always mean that we can do exactly what they’re asking us to do. But listening to what they’re feeling and where they’re at, listening to our partners and what faculty are telling you about what their experiences in the classroom are. When you feel like you’re treading water or drowning, it can be hard to take time to do that.”
He reiterated an approach that all college leaders struggling during the crisis can lean back on.
“Naming your problems is important,” he says. “You can’t face them until you name them. We have great leadership that supports innovation and there is a tolerance for failure as long as it is in the pursuit of student success. Don’t do the same old thing. Try new things. Don’t fail at something that’s already failed. Fail at something new.”