“Access Success” with David McDonald of Western Oregon University

David McDonald

David McDonald

Student Paths Q & A for Enrollment Professionals
by Western Oregon University’s David McDonald

Q: What’s the key to increasing freshmen student retention?

A: Student retention (success) is the result of equal levels of effort and commitment by the student and the university. College graduation must be the students’ goal from the first day. Students must be open to changing work and study habits to meet the increased expectations and independence of college. Students must be willing to admit that they will need help such as academic advising or tutoring and seek such help early and often in their careers. They must be prepared for college challenges and the occasional bumpy road since that is part of the learning process and successful recovery from those challenges is something all employers seek.

Q: What are some tips to increasing student retention?

A: Universities must provide the sustained and accessible support programs and policies. At WOU advising is so important that we meet with students every quarter and advisors receive regular training and support. We are fortunate that for 5 years in a row we have had at least one advisor receive national awards for advising excellence. Our experience with tutoring and our Writing Center is that the best students use the tutoring and writing centers the most. These services are for all students and students who use the tutoring or writing center are the most motivated to succeed.

Q: What’s most important to ensure students who come to campus stay there and graduate? 

A: Connecting the student to the university is the most critical part of the success formula. Connected students use available campus services more effectively and in turn become resources to other students. Connections can come from joining or creating a student club, intramural team, taking on a leadership position, volunteering or even going to sporting or fine art events that are often free to students. Success in college is built upon the foundation of living and learning through the college experiences.

Q: What’s the key to increasing retention and graduation?

A: Commitment from pre-matriculation through graduation. Student success and graduation improvement is the result of a campus commitment and leadership that continues to keep the university focused on student success and learning. The leadership and commitment provide the opportunity to increase programs and supports for students while also keeping class size down. At WOU our average class size has been held steady at 25 students for the past 5 years and we have added new majors, new state-of-the-art buildings, including 1 of the 10 greenest dorms on the planet and have expanded our programs to support students. We have a major student retention committee and all our planning committees include students.

Q: What do you recommend to ensure underrepresented student success — from enrollment through retention to graduation?

A: Universities need to create an atmosphere that fosters the creation and strengthening of a partnership between the students (and their families) and the university. The partnership needs to have as its focus student success leading to graduation. Students must be informed of what it takes to succeed and the university must provide the opportunity and support. In today’s economy that support must also address affordability.

WOU created the Tuition Promise in 2007 to provide students and their families protection from the rapid and unpredictable tuition increases. The Promise locks in a set price per credit for new freshmen for four years and transfer students for a pro-rated number of years depending upon how many credits were being transferred to WOU. This year we expanded the Promise into the Tuition Choice to give students even more flexibility in paying for college.

Q: How have you seen access change in higher education during the past two decades?

A: Higher education has moved from being important as a tool for social and community improvement to being an essential experience. The globalization of the world economy, the intersection of world politics and the near instantaneous coverage and conversations about events and people from all parts of the planet require stronger critical thinking, analytical and communication skills than ever before. The college degree is the most effective and lasting way to develop and strengthen those skills.

The benefits of the degree are greater than ever before, but at the same time the real and perceived cost of attending college are creating barriers to entry and completion that must be addressed.  College is the most effective investment of time and funding that an individual can make to create a future filled with opportunities. And an educated community is the most lasting and beneficial investment we can make as a nation, a state or city. The biggest challenge we face is how to connect the policies and priorities in a way that leads to lasting and strong economies and communities.

Q: Why is access so important to you?

A: Personally, I am like many others at WOU. I am the first member of my family to attend and graduate from college. Like many others at WOU I understand the additional challenges that first-generation students may encounter. As a university our mission statement is explicit in having WOU self-identify as a university that promotes access to graduation. We are a public university that has always placed the needs of students at the top of the list and access is the natural expression of that prioritization.

Q: Do you have a particular success story you’d like to share?

A: The Student Enrichment Program (SEP) at WOU is a wonderful example of maximizing resources to expand opportunities for students. SEP started as a federally funded TRiO program under the Student Support Services program umbrella. Twice since its inception WOU has added significant campus funding to expand the program to serve more students who are first generation, low-income, or disabled to enter and then graduate from WOU.

The SEP program’s graduation rate is always near 90 percent and its students are some of the finest citizens who become incredibly successful and supportive alumni of the university.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

 A: College without a degree is like a plan without wings or an engine. Both will cost money and time to build, and neither will lift or carry anyone or anything. Students should begin college with the explicit goal of graduating. Student should pick a school that is equally committed and focused on their success.

David McDonald is Associate Provost at Western Oregon University, where, since 2005 he has initiated innovative programs such as the Western Tuition Promise. Under his leadership, freshmen student retention has improved to 73% from 62%, the number of enrolled Latino students has doubled so that WOU is now the state leader in Latino enrollment, and the school has become a national leader in retention and graduation rates for underrepresented students. McDonald’s 20-year career in higher education has centered on student access and success, including college affordability.

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