Freshman retention jump to 92 percent

The University will be watching the Class of 2004 to see if last year’s boost in freshmen retention rates will stabilize or fall back to previous year’s levels.

Ninety-two percent of freshmen entering GW in 1998 returned for another year, compared to 89 percent for the previous two years, said Cheryl Biel, director of the Office of Academic Assessment.

The improvement puts GW’s retention rates at a comparable level to similar universities nationwide, Biel said.

Increased merit-based scholarships, improved freshmen advising and the University’s Honors Program were reasons more students decided to stay at GW for a second year, Biel said. A strong economy also has helped boost the rates to a level they should have been at all along, she said.

While tuition has increased about 4 to 5 percent each year for the past two years, money doled out to students has increased 10 percent each year, said Dan Small, director of Student Financial Assistance.

The University has raised its standards for students who qualify for merit-based scholarships because students entering GW are more academically competitive than in the past. But more merit-based money has been given out to help students whose families do not fit the government’s standard for need, because the University has increased efforts to meet the basic needs of more families, Small said.

We’re trying to find that happy medium and I think we have come closer to closing that gap each and every year, Small said.

The average financial aid package per recipient grew from $17,990 two years ago to $22,250 for the class of 2003. Ninety-nine percent of this year’s freshmen that showed need, based on what Small calls a flawed and outdated standard system, received aid.

Some students in this year’s freshman class who will not return next year said the University has done a good job of meeting their financial needs, but they disagree with the way the University spends its money.

What it comes down to is they need to decide whether they are a business or a university, freshman Johanna Hickman said. There are leather couches in the library and no books. They’re building domes in the (mid-campus) quad and there’s people sitting on the floor in class.

Freshman Samantha Shaffer said her Stafford Loan and Presidential Scholarship met her financial need, but she would rather save her money for medical school.

I just don’t think GW is worth $30,000, she said. If I really wanted to, I could manage.

Bob Chernak, vice president of Student and Academic Support Services, said common freshman complaints involve the quality of entry-level courses and language barriers with professors. Students have different definitions of GW’s value, but those who utilize the opportunities that D.C., GW classes and the University’s community life offer are generally satisfied with the University, Chernak said.

I would bet that most of those people who say, `I don’t think I’m getting full value,’ have not availed themselves to all the opportunities, Chernak said.

The Colombian School of Arts and Sciences has made a concerted effort to improve the school’s retention rates by improving academic advising and putting more importance on academically challenging classroom experiences, said Lestor Lefton, dean of the Columbian School of Arts and Sciences. To meet the demand of freshman advising, the school has added a pre-law and a pre-med adviser and a part-time adviser who focuses on co-ops, he said.

It was a strategic decision to enhance the quality of advising and (improve) retention rates, Lefton said.

Students said they were not turned away by academic advising and generally had good classroom experiences.

I feel like GW does an excellent job of advising as long as everything the student wants to do works out, said CSAS freshman Nate Shoman, who said he may not return for another year.

Some students, like freshman Megan Kiefer, said they were leaving because they did not enjoy the students who attend GW and because the city did not meet their expectations. If they had done more research on the type of people GW attracts and the overall Foggy Bottom experience, some students said they would not have attended GW in the first place.

Hickman said many freshmen identify with her concerns about overcrowding and the lack of emphasis on the academic experience at GW, but they decide to stay because it does not effect them as strongly.

Louis Katz, vice president and treasurer, said the University’s push to expand its facilities has a negative short-term impact on everyday conveniences and academics. Education is the University’s first priority, Katz said.

Katz, who describes GW as an institution that is clearly improving its reputation, said the University is aggressively pursuing opportunities for improvement.

One year of favorable retention rates does not make a trend, and the University will have to wait until next August to see if last year’s level of returning freshman was a fluke, Biel said.

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