It might seem like many freshmen leave the University of Mary Washington after their first year, but statistics show that UMW’s retention rate is above average.
Research presented by Eastern Connecticut State University, a league of liberal arts colleges known as COPLAC, reports a national average retention rate of 77 percent. The freshman retention rate at UMW last year was 83 percent, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Reporting.
Mathew Wilkerson, director of Institutional Research at UMW, said that “83 percent is a good level of retention.”
UMW’s rates fare well against similar Virginia public colleges like Longwood University and Christopher Newport University who report retention rates of 77.2 percent and 80.0 percent as of fall 2008, according to the respective universities.
Despite the strong showing, freshman retention rates have been higher in the past. Retention fell to the current 83 percent from 87 percent in 2006.
Wilkerson cited the recession for the drop.
“The dip in persistence for the past two years certainly appears to be a direct reflection of the downturn in the state and national economy,” Wilkerson said.
The lack of expendable wealth has led students to enroll in two-year colleges, such as Germanna Community College, or pursue careers in the available job market.
Recent nationwide drops in retention also have been attributed to the economic downturn. An ACT press release, citing the recession, shows that in 2008, a total of 66 percent of students in the United States returned to college for their sophomore year, the lowest percentage since 1989.
A poll by the College Board and Art and Science Group showed that one in six students changed their college plans as a result of the recession.
According to the “The Art of Student Retention,” a handbook for college administrators created by the Educational Policy Institute, major factors that affect retention rates include the selectivity of the school, diversity, congruence of the school’s mission with the goals of the students and the availability of financial aid.
When asked what steps UMW is taking to combat the drop in retention, Wilkerson said, “The University has focused more efforts on providing scholarships and financial aid to its students and will continue to seek new funding streams to assist students.”
Wilkerson cited that the 2000-2009 UMW Centennial Campaign successfully increased financial support for UMW students. As a result, nearly 1,400 financial aid awards were endowed.
Still, it remains a common perception around campus that an unusually large number of students transfer out of UMW after their freshman year.
Emily Montgomery, a freshman at UMW, has considered transferring to the College of William and Mary.
“I love it here [at UMW] but I’ve considered transferring for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’d like to go to a school in a big city, and the second is that I would like a school with a bigger name,” Montgomery said. “I know a good amount of freshmen who are considering transferring.”
The idea that many freshmen will transfer is a theme common among the freshmen class.
Sophomore Joey Pugach said that UMW is “an over-glorified high school and daycare center” with too much drama. When asked about why he decided not to transfer, he said he would have but did not because of “too much red tape.”
Freshman Anna Smith felt that a lack of course diversity makes UMW less appealing.
“I like William and Mary,” Smith said. “ I think it’s a better school because of what it has to offer its students. I think it is a more liberal school and it has more environmental studies programs. UMW does not offer a wide variety of those kinds of programs. William and Mary is just more diverse.”
Cultural diversity also plays an important role in retaining students, because socially isolated students are more likely to leave the university.
Junior Ariana Johnson, a former member of the Student Transition Program, a program targeted toward culturally diverse students, said, “diversity will definitely help students feel more socially accepted. I think it’s important to have a more culturally diverse campus because you get a better outlook on the rest of the world.”
Joe Mollo, the director of student activities, said that “whenever you work to connect students to their environment, you help to make them feel part of the community, and they will want to stay.”
Mollo said the Office of Student Activities and Community Service now advises 117 clubs, including 14 new clubs. Mollo said that these clubs, and the brand new renovations on the Underground, help keep students at UMW because there are so many events that stem from these organizations.
UMW’s numerous clubs, award-winning professors, diversity initiatives and high number of graduates who go into the Peace Corps may be an indication of why certain students have decided to stay on-campus. For others, those factors may not be enough to keep them here past the first year.
-Laura Falcon, Ehren Guzman, Lafe Henderson and Thalia Halpert Rodis contributed to this report.