Higher education institutions need help improving enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. Despite the pandemic “being over,” enrollments have not recovered to the pre-pandemic levels. Exacerbating this, higher ed is facing significant headwinds to recovering enrollments, including the demographic cliff, reduction of public funding, and a robust job market.
Many people in higher ed remember the “go-go” days when enrollments grew significantly during economic downturns. One need look no further than the Great Recession to see higher education enrollment increasing significantly. However, with the impending demographic cliff due to declining birth rates during the Great Recession, there are not as many traditional college-age students (18-24) as there were in the past.
Traditionally, people went back to school for one of three reasons: (1) to find a job, (2) to get a better job, or (3) to get more pay. This resulted in more graduate programs being offered, as well as degree completion. However, with the current job market and many employers no longer requiring a college degree, many people are foregoing college, completing their degree, or not going to graduate school.
Looking at the demographics of college graduates, only 40% of the US population have a college degree. Doing the math, that leaves 60% of the population who could get a degree. Realistically, this number is probably 20-30%. Still, there are many people that colleges and universities could touch, but institutions must tap into markets they generally have yet to reach out to, e.g., first-generation, lower-income, etc. And with each of these “nontraditional” students, there comes a greater level of support needed.
Turning Around Retention and Graduation Numbers
Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago has broken the mold for turning around retention and graduation numbers. They have bucked the national average by using a strategic enrollment model that turns the traditional higher ed model on its ear. For example, Arrupe graduates 50% of its students in two years and nearly 70% in three years. Over 90% of their students graduate with no debt. Additionally, more than 70% of students complete their Bachelor’s degrees in five years or less at Loyola or another institution.
By comparison, only 13% of students in two-year colleges complete their Associate’s degree in two years, and 13% of students who start at two-year colleges complete their Bachelor’s degrees in six years. Dougherty Family College and its host institution, the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, have successfully adopted Arrupe’s model.
The Arrupe College Strategic Enrollment Model
When Dr. Steve Katsouros first began studying this problem, he found that one of the biggest challenges to improving enrollment and retention is creating a sense of belonging and community with its students. Most students who have not enrolled in college are first-generation, Pell-eligible, and undocumented students, particularly those who feel disconnected and whose grades are between B- and C-. Katsouros understood this and put in place a scaled version of a DEI model to enable it to provide a quality two-year education for underserved, at-risk students that supports their continued success at either its main campus, Loyola University Chicago, or another four-year institution.
The program begins with a multi-day summer orientation to instill a sense of community in its incoming first-year students. This takes place on campus even though the college is a commuter school. During this time, incoming students connect with their academic advisors, who are faculty members, and rising sophomores who serve as orientation leaders.
Academic advisors and rising sophomores are crucial in first-year students’ lives after orientation. To remove the stigma often associated with receiving extra help, second-year students in Arrupe’s Fellow Program participate in first-year classes and provide tutoring during “office hours.” Additionally, first-year students receive more one-on-one time with their academic advisers since each advisor only oversees 20 to 25 students, unlike other schools where advisors can be grouped with 500-plus students.
This practice of giving more attention to students—referred to as cura personalis, which means “care for the whole person” in Latin—involves faculty showing a vested interest in their advisees and students by clearly demonstrating that they care about how they’re growing, what they’re learning and pursuing, and what their other interests are besides academics.
Assisting Students with Maximizing Financial Aid, Transferring, and Post-graduation Support
Since Arrupe’s model depends on students receiving the maximum amount of Pell grants and state aid possible. Arrupe employs a special financial aid officer who helps students and their families navigate the application processes, including FAFSA. These officers also work with undocumented students.
Suppose students want to continue their education after graduation. In that case, a full-time college transfer counselor is available to help them decide whether it would be best for them to continue at Arrupe’s main campus, Loyola University Chicago, or another school. The same applies to Dougherty Family College and the University of St. Thomas. In addition, upon a student’s graduation, a graduate support coordinator tracks their progress, such as their overall success, current major(s), and whether they are connecting with the right resources.
Supporting Student Mental Health and Wellness
Mental health issues are significant in higher education these days – some students rate this in the top three challenges they face to graduation. To address mental health issues, Arrupe College’s implementation plan involved hiring social workers who make their services accessible to students and normalizing their resources to combat potential feelings of inadequacy and disconnectedness more effectively.
For example, one program provides complimentary breakfast and lunch daily to address food insecurity and build a sense of community. In addition, to close the technology gap, all students receive a laptop and, since the pandemic, internet hotspots.
Making Classes More Accessible Without Compromising Quality
Arrupe offers robust classes, not “Loyola Lite,” with in-person and distance education courses, which are just as academically rigorous as their counterparts in Loyola University Chicago’s first-year students and sophomore-year programs. The difference is that Arrupe students can either attend in the morning or afternoon to enable them to work as they get their degree; this is important given the student demographics, i.e., first-generation and Pell-eligible.
Additionally, the classes run longer to ensure students are getting a good grounding. And unlike most community colleges, all courses are credit-bearing, including remedial classes.
Connecting Students with Jobs and Paid Internships
Since most students who attend two-year schools need to work to support their families, they attend classes in a cohort either in the morning or the afternoon, not both, to enable them to work part-time jobs. Arrupe found that the optimum amount of work for a student while they are in class is 20-25 hours per week. This gives the students enough money to continue their education and still support their families as necessary.
Arrupe hired an employer relations officer who formed strategic alliances with local employers to identify jobs and paid internships for them. This officer also ensures peace of mind for employers by keeping up to date with their employees and serving as an additional communication line. Since the model caters to the underserved and students of color, employers have been more than willing to create jobs for Arrupe and Dougherty Family College because those would be the employees they would be hiring.
“We also found that those employers became donors and financial supporters of the colleges and universities hosting these students. For example, upon launching the program at Arrupe, over 50% of these donors had never given to Loyola University Chicago. So, this was new money.”
Interestingly enough, when they move on to their junior and senior years, many students can continue with their jobs, and when they graduate, they have a job waiting for them.
Adapting the Arrupe Model to Other Institutions
Dr. Steven Katsouros left Arrupe in 2018 to found the Come to Believe Foundation and Network in New York City. Come to Believe works with higher ed institutions considering adopting Arrupe’s model as part of its annual Design Grant initiative. The grant process involves performing a feasibility study to ensure that the college or university can support the program and if there’s market demand for it.
Additionally, the foundation helps higher ed leaders do their due diligence to ensure they are confident when presenting their proposals to their various committees or the entire board.
Finally, prospective adopters of Arrupe’s model participate in multiple virtual retreats, learning how to finance the model, the curriculum, and the wraparound support services.
Arrupe College is thriving, and its numbers prove the model works. Not only are they profitable, but they are also bucking the trends for retention and graduation. It is a model that is worthwhile for many higher ed institutions.
“If you’re looking for a new student population that perhaps you’re not enrolling or not enrolling in large numbers, if you’re looking for a substantive DEI program, and if you’re looking for new successful experiences, advancement, attracting new donors, and building donor support, consider this model.”