Ohio Wesleyan is celebrating its highest student retention numbers in 14 years and continuing to develop and implement systems that help students succeed in the classroom and persist to graduation. (Photo by Brad Ward)

Improving Outcomes

Ohio Wesleyan’s Student Success Initiatives Result in Increased Retention

By Cole Hatcher

DELAWARE, Ohio – Ohio Wesleyan University is on a mission to identify and eliminate impediments to students remaining enrolled and persisting to graduation. Two years into the all-hands-on-deck initiative, OWU is seeing its highest retention numbers in 14 years.

“Our first-to-second-year retention rate is 84.3% for the class that entered in fall 2022,” President Matt vandenBerg, Ed.D., announced. “That is 2.5 percentage points above the rate for the class that entered in 2021 – and fully 5.6 percentage points higher than the class that entered in fall 2020. It is our highest retention rate since the class that entered in fall 2009.

“To dig a little deeper,” vandenBerg said, “our retention rate for first-generation students rose 9.8 percentage points, and retention rose 7.1 percentage points for Pell-eligible students. That is proof of the success of our extensive efforts and initiatives with at-risk groups. ...

“And,” he continued, “we are seeing significant gains in persistence with all class levels this year. Retention of students going from their second year to their third year increased by 6.9 percentage points over last year’s cohort, from 87.4% to 94.3%, the third consecutive year this rate has risen. This is fantastic progress!”

Provost Karlyn Crowley, Ph.D., credits a concerted, combined OWU faculty-staff effort with helping increasing numbers of students fulfill their higher education aspirations.

“Every student at Ohio Wesleyan should feel that they belong, that they have the tools to persist, and that they will graduate to go out in the world and succeed and give back,” Crowley said.

“We are asking, ‘What is getting in the way of student success?’ And then we clear it,” she said. “We are asking, ‘Why is that process so complicated for students and families?’ And fixing it. We are asking, ‘What small amount of assistance might make the difference between a student dropping out or finishing?’ And doing it. It is a whole campus effort to see what is not student-centered and make it so.”

Dwayne Todd, Ph.D., Ohio Wesleyan’s vice president for Student Engagement and Success, said the university has launched several important initiatives over the past few years to support student retention:

  • Moving The Needle – Launched in fall 2021, this initiative identified specific areas for improvement and created four committees to design, vet, and help implement solutions. The committees currently are working in the areas of academic support, the business of being a student, the first-year experience, and holistic student advising.
  • Bridge Program – This free, three-week residential experience seeks to provide incoming first-year students with the skills and self-confidence they need to thrive at Ohio Wesleyan. Launched in summer 2021, those who complete it now earn academic credit for their efforts. Ohio Wesleyan is retaining about 95% of students who complete the Bridge Program each year, Todd said.
  • Bishop ACCESS – This fee-based program provides one-on-one academic coaching for students with executive function challenges including ADHD, learning disabilities, and mental health disabilities.
  • Camp Oh-Wooo – All incoming students currently participate in a three-day Camp Oh-Wooo off-campus adventure, which seeks to help the university’s newest Bishops to make friends, reduce anxiety, and connect to OWU, including meeting current student camp leaders and faculty-staff volunteer partners. Camp Oh-Wooo is held each fall after new students move to campus but before classes start.
  • First-Year Seminar – All new students now complete a semester-long First-Year Seminar designed to help them continue to build relationships and chart the course of their OWU academic journey while they collaborate on “How to Change Your World” and tackle a specific issue of global importance.
  • First-Gen OWU / Bishop Elevate – With 21% of Ohio Wesleyan’s total student population identifying as first-generation college students, the university is working to ensure they have the support they need to understand expectations and processes as they forge their futures. This fall, Ohio Wesleyan launched the Bishop Elevate office and program to provide an even stronger framework for these efforts.
  • OWU Connection – As of fall 2023, Ohio Wesleyan’s signature experience is fully incorporated into the Ohio Wesleyan curriculum, with faculty members helping to ensure all students complete at least one Connection experience before they graduate. Designed to help students “think big, do good, go global, and get real” (hands-on experience), the OWU Connection “has all four components that make up the high-impact experiences leading to retention,” Crowley said.

“Going forward, we will see retention rates increase due to that requirement,” she said. “Every student at OWU has a chance to succeed because they must fulfill what is best practice nationally.”

President vandenBerg agreed, concluding: “Ohio Wesleyan is raising the bar on student success, and I look forward to seeing how much our students can achieve with this infrastructure. I’d like to thank all of our faculty and staff for their outstanding work, especially Karlyn, Dwayne, and their teams.”

Learn more about enrolling (and succeeding) at Ohio Wesleyan at owu.edu/admission.

Founded in 1842, Ohio Wesleyan University is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts universities. Located in Delaware, Ohio, the private university offers more than 70 undergraduate majors and competes in 24 NCAA Division III varsity sports. Through its signature experience, the OWU Connection, Ohio Wesleyan teaches students to understand issues from multiple academic perspectives, volunteer in service to others, build a diverse and global perspective, and translate classroom knowledge into real-world experience through internships, research, and other hands-on learning. Ohio Wesleyan is featured in the book “Colleges That Change Lives” and included on the U.S. News & World Report and Princeton Review “Best Colleges” lists. Connect with OWU expert interview sources at owu.edu/experts or learn more at owu.edu.