Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
To address some of the challenges faced by open-enrollment students, and ultimately lead to more students completing their degrees, Utah Valley University in Orem this year began a structured enrollment policy that set academic standards for potential applicants. Applicants age 23 and under must score at least a 19 on the ACT and have a 2.5 GPA. Students age 24 and older are expected to meet the minimum requirements on the Accuplacer entrance exam.

OREM — In discussing the mission of Utah Valley University, President Matthew Holland often draws a metaphor to New York's Brooklyn Bridge. 

At the time of its completion in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Holland said its design required several paradigm shifts in order to accomplish the goal of bridging the two land masses on opposite sides of the East River.

For Holland, who is a lifelong history buff as well as an educator, the comparison lies in UVU's efforts to find a balance between its dual missions of providing educational access to all members of the community while maintaining rigorous, university-level learning.

"We have to remain inclusive, we have to satisfy a large number of students, but we can’t do it at the cost of quality," Holland said.

Open-enrollment schools — in which applying students are admitted regardless of high school grade point averages and college readiness assessment scores — typically see a higher proportion of part-time students, working parents and individuals who require some degree of remediation in preparation for college-level coursework.

Those factors are deterrents to a student's education, often contributing to lower retention rates and, consequently, lower rates of graduation and degree attainment. It is a particular challenge for Weber State University, Utah Valley University and Dixie State University, which are charged with maintaining the access of a community college while providing a university education for different regions of the state.

"Individuals come to us with various levels of preparation," said Bruce Bowen, associate provost for enrollment services at Weber State University. "They’re just as capable but may not have had the opportunity. It’s a noble work and I’m excited to be apart of it."

New policies at Utah Valley University and Dixie State University will seek to maintain and strengthen that dual mission, while also taking a bite out of low retention and graduation rates.

"Our retention rate is hovering around 50 percent for our Freshman class. That's something we're trying to work on," said David Roos, director of Enrollment Services for Dixie State University. "If you can get your students past the first year, their retention rate jumps. It's a huge puzzle piece in the persistence to graduation."

Finding a solution

To address some of the challenges faced by open-enrollment students, and ultimately lead to more students completing their degrees, Utah Valley University in Orem this year began a structured enrollment policy that set academic standards for potential applicants.

Applicants age 23 and under must score at least a 19 on the ACT and have a 2.5 GPA. Students age 24 and older are expected to meet the minimum requirements on the Accuplacer entrance exam.

Those students who do not meet the standards are still accepted under the school's open enrollment policy, but are required to regularly meet with an academic counselor, attend freshman orientation and complete any necessary remediation quickly and sequentially.

School officials also moved up the deadline for applications and enrollment as well as the date that students are purged from classes for not paying tuition.

"We’re still being inclusive, but we’re asking them to be more serious," Holland said. "We’re getting out of the business of the revolving door with students who just wander in because it’s open admission, don’t really connect, don’t really know and don’t pay their tuition. That’s a waste of their time; it’s a waste of our time."

Holland said it will take time to measure the successes of the new policy, but the school is already seeing its effects. Figures show that UVU traditionally sees a drop in headcount between the third week of the fall semester and the end of the fall semester, something Holland said is simply "part of the DNA of UVU."

At the beginning of the fall 2012 semester, the first year the policy was implemented, year-to-year headcount figures at UVU fell by nearly 2,000 students, reversing a trend of annual growth and reinstating the University of Utah as the largest university in the state. But as the semester progressed, not only did UVU's numbers not go through its  traditional decline, enrollment actually grew by 100 students.

"We did lose some students this way, but there are some other things that are kind of an early signal to us that this is having just the effect we wanted," Holland said. "For the first time, we’ve gone up at the end of term from our third week numbers."

Bowen said that students who attend Weber , and other open-enrollment schools, fall along a full spectrum of academic preparation, from individuals who could have otherwise enrolled in an Ivy League school to those who struggle for basic competency in math and reading. But while students may begin at different levels, he said, anyone willing to put in the work for four or five years leaves with the academic training to enter a career or continue on to graduate schooling.

"When you offer someone an opportunity, that’s half of the equation. The other half is the student has to take advantage of that opportunity," Bowen said. "We have students who do that, they persist and they are successful."

Identifying students

Bowen said Weber does not have a formal enrollment and remediation program, but ACT, SAT and other assessments are used to place students in developmental English and math classes if they fall below competency. Those classes may serve as prerequisites for other upper-division courses, but beyond those naturally occurring registration barriers students are not impeded from moving ahead in their course selection. 

That policy is similar to enrollment at Salt Lake Community College, Vice President of Student Services Deneece Huftalin said, where student scores are used for placement in math and English but beyond that no gates are shut. She said SLCC requires incoming students to attend freshman orientation, where students are encouraged to meet with advisers and address any remediation needs as soon as possible.

"When you come to orientation, we do talk very significantly about the fact that we want you to be successful," Huftalin said. "If you have developmental education needs you should do those right up front."

At Dixie State University, which was recently upgraded from college status during the last Legislative session, officials are working to roll out an enrollment plan for under-performing students. Roos said that beginning with the fall 2013 semester, students with an index score (a combination of GPA and ACT scores) below a certain benchmark will be placed in a first-year advising program where academic counseling is required prior to registering for classes.

Roos said the retention rate for students below the academic benchmark is roughly 30 percent, compared to the 50 percent school average. He said the advising program is intended to provide struggling students with a little extra "hand-holding" as they navigate their first year of higher education.

"It's clear to us that we've got this at-risk population," he said. "They meet with an adviser and we keep a registration hold on them for the entire year."

Students helping students

Roos also said the school is working to expand its student mentoring program, in which upper-division students connect with freshman and build supporting relationships.

"We've found that's a huge part of retention," Roos said. "You've got to get students talking to students."

Carissa Sawyer, an elementary education senior at Dixie, has worked for one year as a student mentor and said it has been a great experience. She said professors notify the mentors about students with missing assignments or declining grades and the mentors then reach out by phone or email to give the students reminders, answer questions, or encourage students to take advantage of campus tutoring services.

"It’s been fun to hear when people actually appreciate it," Sawyer said. "They just need to know that they can use (campus) resources rather than just expecting things to happen."

Jordon Roberts, a senior studying psychology and theater at Dixie, said there are some students who react negatively to being contacted by mentors, but a growing majority are appreciative of the effort.

"It’s not a punishment in anyway, we’re just checking in," he said. "I definitely think it’s better having it come from another student."

Holland said the structured enrollment policy is only one initial piece of the university's efforts to maximize resources and meet the needs of its service area. He said the school is working to expand online education and hybrid learning models and will continue tweaking its enrollment standards to make sure that all students are given the opportunity succeed at the university level, with the understanding that they take their education seriously.

"This will take years to know fully what it’s impact is but I think for now it speaks right to our effort to find an innovative way to navigate this dual mission, which a lot of institutions just wouldn’t try to do," Holland said. "They’d just say ‘let’s do one or the other,’ and the fact is our service region needs both. The state’s not in a position to build a big expensive second school."