Student enrollment at the University of Wyoming took a small hit over the course of the pandemic.
But longer term trends of lower retention among certain student demographics also remain a point of concern.
Retention rates for first-time, full-time students steadily increased over the five years leading up to the pandemic, according to data from the UW Office of Institutional Analysis. Those retention rates dropped 3.3% between fall 2019 and fall 2020 but rose again slightly over the following year.
Students drop out for a multitude of reasons. Some left when COVID-19 hit because the new modalities of learning weren’t working for them. But Nycole Courtney, UW associate vice president for student affairs and dean of student success and graduation, said that financial and work burdens in particular seemed to be significant barriers to retention during the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, we noticed that a lot of students had to work maybe more than one job and had to drop down to part time,” she said at a Wednesday board of trustees meeting. “That full-time status was just no longer feasible for them because they were struggling financially but also because they didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Data comparing retention rates between federal Pell grant recipients and students who hadn’t received a Pell grant point to these challenges.
Undergraduate students typically receive federal Pell grants when they have significant financial need. There were 1,907 enrolled UW students receiving Pell grants out of a total 8,700 degree-seeking students as of fall 2021.
The maximum Pell grant award for the 2022-2023 year is $ 6,495, according to the US Department of Education. UW’s current average undergraduate cost of attendance for Wyoming residents is $ 18,682. That number bumps up to $ 33,832 for nonresidents.
“Pell does not cover, really, all that much in the grand scheme of things,” Hunter Swilling, a UW student and ex-official board of trustees member, said. “I am a Pell grant student, and it covers about a third of my costs, so I have to find the rest elsewhere. I have the Hathaway (scholarship) and other things as well, but for out-of-state students in particular, costs are higher and they don’t have access to as many scholarships. “
UW Pell grant recipients had consistently lower retention rates between 2012 and 2020 compared with students who didn’t receive the grant. The retention rate for grant recipients was 67.9%. That’s 9.8% lower than non-recipients.
The four-year graduation rate for Pell recipients has also been consistently lower; less than a third of Pell grant students who entered UW in 2017 graduated in four years. That’s 13.2% lower than non-Pell recipients.
“If I’m a Pell student, I might struggle taking more than 12 credits because I’ve got to work too, I’ve got to pay my bills,” Courtney said.
That can create a damaging cycle where students have to take fewer classes to work part time but then stay in school longer, possibly accumulating more debt.
But the university needs to accommodate those who simply can’t make a four-year graduation happen, trustee Brad Bonner said.
“If we understand that there are some realities that are going to keep that from occurring, we want to make sure that we’re using this information to be in the best position to support these students to graduate whether it’s in four years or five years , but also make sure that kids understand the benefits of a four year graduation. “
Other UW student demographics have also had consistently lower retention rates compared to others. Male students have lower rates compared to female students. First-generation students have lower rates compared to those with parents who went to college. Students who identify with a racial or ethnic minority are less likely to finish compared to students who identify as white. These findings are consistent with national trends.
Retention rates decreased and probation rates increased for all these groups over the first year of the pandemic.