CANYON, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – The first day of West Texas A&M University’s and Amarillo College’s Fall 2022 semester is Aug. 22. After months of new student orientations, and with the added bonus of an August tax-free weekend focused on school supplies and clothes, many incoming college students may feel as prepared as they could be. However, what about longer-term support and advice for those beginning a new leg of their academic careers?

MyHighPlains.com took a look at the state of higher education in the United States, as well as at the local level with West Texas A&M University and Amarillo College, and asked our audience to offer their thoughts in an effort to give perspective and resources to incoming college freshmen.

College enrollment and graduation rates, big and small

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and reports from researchers at EducationData.Org, 62.7% of the high school graduates in the country in 2020 enrolled in postsecondary institutions for that fall semester. However, less than half of students enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions graduate, and higher education institutions across the country have seen enrollment decline over the past decade.

In Texas, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 44.9% of high school graduates enrolled in postsecondary education in 2020. This was a decrease of -6.7% from 2018; over 51% of high school graduates enrolled in 2018 as well as 2019, with a decrease between them of less than half a percentage point.

Further, many Texan students that enter postsecondary education drop out before completing a degree. While Texas residents are 21.8% less likely to drop out of college compared to other US residents on average, as noted by NCES, the number of college dropouts in Texas is 69.3% higher than its number of undergraduates. Also, people from 25 to 44 years old are nearly 11% less likely to have bachelor’s degrees if they live in Texas.

Why do students leave college?

According to research from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) in 2021, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the evolution of a new economy relying on automation and information have created an environment where students are more likely to disengage with higher education for a number of reasons. Students are facing greater challenges and families are more financially fragile, which brings a higher risk of students disengaging or becoming disenfranchised with higher education.

Among college students in UPCEA’s research, 42% said that they had financial reasons for dropping out of higher education. Among mid-millennials, 32% of students said they left college for family or personal commitments. Many mid-Millenials were working parents who had to choose between school and providing for their families, and other groups such as Gen Z students said they left because their school was “not the right fit.”

This has left higher education institutions with the task of understanding student struggles, and assisting in order to help students re-engage.

Re-engagement and institutions

On a structural level, according to the UPCEA study, students had a number of strategies and tactics they said their institutions could have used to keep them engaged or encourage them to return. Among these, students said their institutions could have provided:

  • Certificates for credits earned
  • Courses at lower prices
  • Workshops to address struggles
  • Counseling
  • Concierge services

UPCEA’s Chief Research Officer Jim Fong said that the study highlighted the “critical need for institutions to know their students and engage with them on their terms” due to the uniqueness of modern learners.

“It is imperative that institutions cultivate meaningful connections to their students from the moment they enter the enrollment funnel,” said Fong, “Life happens, students disengage. In this increasingly competitive marketplace, it is essential that institutions have an established relationship and tactics of engagement with their disengaged learners to bring them back into the fold.” 

College on the High Plains

In the High Plains at West Texas A&M University, officials said that new students coming in for the Fall 2022 semester filled out a survey during their orientations about their hopes for their college experience.

Nine out of 10 of them want to make new friends and have a full social experience, said Amber Black, assistant vice president for student enrollment, engagement, and success. She also noted that research supports the idea that students who have made a new friend by their third week in school are more likely to persist and graduate. Likewise, research shows that students who do something meaningful at least once a week helps them feel like they belong on campus.

In an effort to enable students with resources and a sense of community and support, especially minority or first-generation students, WT officials promoted the new Connect Coach program that has been involved in the new student orientation events. The group is made up of more than 70 WT staff members, as well as some faculty and graduate assistants, that join students during orientation to go through a checklist of “critical steps” to take academically and socially.

WT said that the Connect Coaches not only reiterate important aspects of student orientation, including how to buy parking permits and order textbooks but also how to find meaningful campus employment opportunities, and how to secure child care, among others.

Those points are also covered through the new student orientations for Amarillo College, which offers not only a “Badger Beginnings” program for students and parents but also general new student orientations, both online and in person.

Alongside the counseling and workshop opportunities presented by the Connect Coach program, WT has published resources on its website for incoming freshmen and other students focused on academics, financial, social, physical, and community aspects of campus life.

Advice from the neighbors

When asked by MyHighPlains.com for advice and other tips to offer incoming college students, members of the community took to social media to give input. Among the pieces of advice given by audience members were multiple areas for which many universities, including WT, offer resources to students:

Altogether, in the face of uncertainty, disengagement, and enrollment dips, community members and institutions continue to work to offer support and resources for students looking ahead to the coming semester.

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