The four-year graduation rate at Eastern Kentucky University continues its steady rise, and has now more than doubled in an eight-year span.
Roughly one in three students from the Fall 2014 freshman cohort graduated in four years. The 32.7 percent record is up from 29.98 just a year ago and well above the 15.67 mark for the 2006 freshman cohort, according to just-released figures. The five-year graduation rate has leveled off at approximately 45 percent, up from 33 percent in 2005; the six-year rate is at approximately 51 percent, up from 49 percent a year ago and 38 percent for the 2004 freshman cohort.
Not coincidentally, the academic quality of Eastern’s freshman classes, as measured by high school GPA and ACT scores, continues to reach record highs each fall. The average GPA for all degree-seeking freshmen increased from 3.33 in 2014 to 3.5 this fall, while the average ACT Composite score for the same group jumped from 22.9 to 23.8 in the same timeframe.
In 2015, the University introduced a revamped merit scholarship model, accompanied by a larger financial investment and giving equal weight to ACT and SAT scores and high school GPA. Approximately 40 percent of EKU freshmen receive a merit-based scholarship. The number of freshmen requiring a remedial “bridge” program dropped by almost 33 percent from 2017 to 2018.
“Our merit scholarship model is helping us to attract better students and retain them,” said Dr. Eugene Palka, vice president for student success. Other factors in the improving graduation rates include enhanced awareness of students with academic issues, programs aimed at facilitating academic recovery, and academic enrichment programs and resources.
Once on campus, a student’s progress toward a degree is closely tracked through the DegreeWorks platform and the Student Success Collaborative. Students are required to register when they reach 90 credit hours in order to facilitate greater situational awareness among advisers and those students nearing graduation.
Other additions in recent years include a Freshman Academy for Diverse Students, as well as a comparable program for juniors and seniors; a Student Success Center that targets under-represented minorities and first-generation college students; and a First Colonels program also tailored to first-generation students, who constitute more than 40 percent of the EKU student body.
“We’re creating pathways and removing barriers to retention, progression and, ultimately, graduation,” Palka said.
Meanwhile, the freshman retention rate (the percentage of those who return for a sophomore year) has leveled off in recent years at approximately 73-74 percent after a steady climb from 63 percent in 2006. Notably, the retention rate for minority freshmen is now within 1 percentage point of non-minority freshmen. “We’ve made incredible progress there,” Palka said.
Palka attributed a slight dip in freshman enrollment this fall (from 2,586 to 2,445) in part to external factors such as job growth resulting from an improving economy, as well as demographic shifts and the availability of work-ready scholarships. Eastern enrolled a total of 16,612 students in Fall 2017, down slightly from the previous year but still near the University’s record-high total of 16,844 in 2015. Final figures for this fall are not yet available.
“Given the economy, regional trends and demographic shifts, we were not surprised by a slight dip in freshman enrollment,” Palka said. “As we try to project our yield from the service region and state, we have to offset the economic impacts and the unfavorable demographic changes by continuing to increase our out-of-state enrollment.”
The University’s recently instituted SMART (Selective Merit Aid/Reduced Tuition) Program will save eligible out-of-state undergraduates more than $8,000 in annual out-of-state tuition costs. To be eligible for the SMART Program, students must meet certain academic requirements and reside in one of the following states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, or Washington, D.C.
The University recently announced another change to its merit scholarship model. Starting in Fall 2019, Kentucky students with at least an ACT composite score of 21 and a unweighted GPA of 3.0 will earn a merit award at EKU. The new model has eight award tiers starting at $2,000 and topping out at $16,000 for students scoring at the top of the calculated index. Students who reside on campus will receive the full amount of their award, or 25 percent less when they are eligible and choose to live off campus.
“We have been forward-looking with our scholarship model to give increasing numbers of students an opportunity for an affordable education,” Palka said. “We will also continue to emphasize our retention programs.”