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Fort Lewis College brought in huge number of freshmen. Now, how does it keep them?

960 students is the largest class in 17 years, but retention remains a concern
Freshmen August Cox, right, and Taylor McAfee were both attracted to Fort Lewis College by the great outdoors that surrounds Durango. Cox was also drawn in by the FLC Cycling Club. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Fort Lewis College this year welcomed the largest first-year freshmen class to its campus since 2004.

FLC President Tom Stritikus attributed several factors to the college’s success in attracting students, but he admitted retaining those new students remains a challenge.

From building up the campus academic hub with student support services to developing a pipeline of points of contact for student resources, Stritikus said the college is making ground.

Nine hundred and sixty freshmen out of 3,350 total students were enrolled at FLC as of Oct. 15. In the freshmen class, women outnumber men in both full-time and part-time enrollment: 512 women are enrolled full time while 399 men are enrolled full time.

White, non-Hispanic students make up the largest portion of the freshmen class at 362 students, with American Indian or Alaska Native students trailing just behind at 326 students.

Stritikus said the first factor he thinks propelled student enrollment in 2021 is accessibility, specifically in regard to the efforts the college took last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lleyton Hull, center, is the president of the “Extreme Concrete Sports“ club that he and new friends created at Fort Lewis College. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The majority of classes in 2020 were held in-person, the campus was kept open for students, many of whom lived in residence halls, and the college gave a record number of official college tours. FLC conducted 985 official campus tours to prospective students in 2020, Stritikus said. That’s 209 more than the 776 campus tours given the previous year.

Stritikus

Because many high schools implemented COVID-19 protocols that restricted access to their facilities, FLC admissions took part in fewer on-site high school recruitment trips. To compensate for fewer admissions activities in high schools, the college invited more visits to its own campus.

FLC may have had an advantage over colleges with closed campuses when it came to high school students considering where to start their college careers because they were able visit FLC in person, Stritikus said.

A greater number of prospective students who visited last year ended up enrolling this year, Stritikus said. He said he thinks the opportunity to see staff members and faculty working despite the risks of the pandemic struck a chord with students and families.

“Doesn’t mean we were perfect with the pandemic response, and it was really hard,” Stritikus said.

He said the pandemic also shined a light on the great outdoors that the Durango area offers and referenced the urban flight of people from cities into smaller, more rural and open spaces.

Clubs and organizations

FLC, Durango and the surrounding area’s opportunities for outdoor activities drew a quartet of skaters to the college from all across the country.

Lleyton Hull, Taylor McAfee, August Cox and Johnette Ostlund met on campus and decided to form a skating club they call “Extreme Concrete Sports.”

Hull, 18, is the president of Extreme Concrete Sports. The freshman from Bentonville, Arkansas, the birthplace of Walmart, is pursuing a major in business administration. He was drawn to FLC for its nearby San Juan Mountains.

August Cox, 17, is from Calvert County, Maryland, about an hour south of D.C. They visited several Colorado colleges, including CU Boulder, CU Denver and Colorado State University. But in addition to the appeal of Durango’s mountainous terrain and abundance of outdoor activities, Cox got the impression that FLC was more inviting.

Fort Lewis College freshmen students and roommates August Cox, left, and Taylor McAfee study in their dorm. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“People were wearing their masks, so that was a big thing I was looking for because I’m immunocompromised,” Cox said. “If people wouldn’t respect just a piece of fabric on their face they probably wouldn’t respect me as a person.”

Freshman Taylor McAfee of Winona, Missouri, toured the CSU and Boulder CU campuses in addition to FLC, but McAfee preferred the vibe of Fort Lewis and how supportive student resources were. McAfee said the college resources have been a huge support in helping her find her bearings.

One example is McAfee’s first-year experience course, a class that puts her into a small group of other freshmen. The course is designed to introduce students to each other and give them a chance to form close-knit community.

FLC clubs and organizations include the Cycling Club, intramural and club sports, Black Student Resource Center, Diversity Collaborative, Native American Center and El Centro.

COVID-19 forced the college to integrate further into the digital world to reach out to prospective high schoolers. The strategies the college used, such as virtual town halls and one-to-one meetings between prospective students and admissions counselors, are tools FLC will continue to use in the future.

The virtual admissions sessions were convenient outside the realm of COVID-19, too, in that prospective students had more flexibility as they researched the schools they considered attending.

“You may not be able to come on that day,” Stritikus said. “But I think that if there’s a Zoom (session), a 20-minute session at night, pick one – those worked really well for students.”

FLC admissions and marketing teams coordinated well with each other over 2020 to build relationships with high school counselors and to help prospective students through the college application process and filing for student aid, Stritikus said.

One way the college adapted to COVID-19 from a marketing standpoint was through a project that fell into its line of sight.

Fort Lewis College is the first episode featured on “The College Tour,” an Amazon Prime series that features videos of colleges and campus tours. (Screenshot)

FLC was contacted by “The College Tour,” an IMDb TV series, in the summer of 2020. FLC Marketing & Communications Director Lindsay Nyquist said the college was looking for creative ways to spend marketing dollars to reach students who weren’t traveling amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first episode of the series features 10 FLC students who were interviewed for “The College Tour” about topics such as diversity, athletics, outdoor recreation and undergraduate research.

“We ended up using some existing advertising budget that wasn’t going to be as relevant in the COVID world and put it into that resource instead,” Nyquist said.

Stritikus said what prospective students saw on their campus tours contributed to their decisions to attend FLC. He referenced the Animas High School campus building that is being constructed as well as the science center that celebrated a ground breaking in October 2020.

Efforts to boost retention rates

Although the college was successful in attracting its largest class since 2004, whether those freshmen students return for another year has yet to be determined.

How is FLC tackling the challenge of retaining new freshman students?

Of full-time freshmen who enrolled in fall 2020, only 54.41%, or 432 students out of 794 students, stuck around for their sophomore year in 2021, according to the college’s historical records of common data sets.

That’s a sharp decline from the rate of 68% of first-year freshmen who began in fall 2019 and continued in fall 2020.

FLC’s retention rate has hovered between 59% to 65% over much of the last decade. The median retention rate for FLC over the last 10 years is 62.2%.

“We are super focused on it (retention efforts), and we’ve been super focused on it since the beginning of my time,” said Stritikus, who joined the college ahead of the fall semester in 2018. “We really, really need to do better here.”

Stritikus said FLC’s persistence rate, or the rate that freshmen continue their schooling at any institution, is near the national average of about 60%, which Stritikus said “isn’t great.”

“Last year was a very difficult year to be a first-year student,“ Stritikus said. ”Even with all the great stuff that we did, we just didn’t have these points of social connection.”

FLC hosts peer tutoring in its student library as well as faculty tutoring services. Stritikus said the college is placing additional services, such as career services, in the student library to combat the stigma of tutoring services. The goal is to remove the association with that part of the library as the place only students who need tutoring visit.

The college also hosts faculty tutors who are organized like peer mentor coaches, which Stritikus described as similar to the Federal TRIO Programs that serve people from disadvantaged backgrounds, which the college also uses.

FLC has created a model around peer collaboration and peer mentors, Stritikus said. On a less academic-oriented level, the college campus has been revamped with fire pits, outdoor tents and similar facilities to increase the points of connection between people on campus.

“Just things where people are connecting to each other,” Stritikus said. “I would say we care about a sense of well-being and belonging.”

Stritikus referenced the removal of panels on the clock tower that showed inaccurate and disrespectful depictions of the Indian Boarding School experience.

“We want people to feel like this is their campus and they belong here,” he said.

Earlier work the college did was to streamline student services through the SkyHawk Station, an information and student services facility. Stritikus likened it to a Mac Store experience, where a student enters, tells an attendant what he or she needs, and waits while the attendant finds a solution or someone who can help.

The Sky Hawks Station was used to avoid “cold hand-offs” where students are directed to a department elsewhere on campus and it is unknown if they ever had their problem addressed.

FLC will also offer a new summer “Sophomore Soar” program this May that is donor-funded and designed to help first-year students transition to their sophomore year. Sophomore Soar is building off of a Mellon Grant of $1 million over 3 years.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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