By Marco Santana
New data shows that colleges across the country have quickly overcome pandemic-related struggles to retain students — and the numbers are even better at Beacon College.
The school outpaces national averages in two key enrollment metrics: persistence and retention.
The key to doing so has been to be open to change and flexible with both learning options and offerings, said Alexander Morris-Wood, Beacon’s vice president of the Division of Program Development and Global Partnerships.
“We have created a malleable model so we can change approaches or start new initiatives,” he said. “We know that is in the best interests of our students.”
The result has been a consistently better-than-average rate of students who return to Beacon after they enroll, known as a retention rate.
Its partner data point is persistence, which measures students who return for a second year to any college.
Of the students who enrolled in Beacon College in fall 2021, 82.5 percent returned to the school the next year.
That retention rate far outpaces the national average of 67.2 percent, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse’s Research Center.
That national average, meanwhile, marks the highest rate since before the pandemic.
High retention rates can represent so much more than just a feather in Beacon’s cap, Provost Shelly Chandler said.
“It validates that we do an exceptional job of educating our students in and out of the classroom,” she said. “It also signifies that our hard work is worthy. It helps motivate us to keep up the dedicated efforts.”
Flexibility certainly helps create an atmosphere that both attracts students to a school and keeps them there.
Beacon College is constantly evaluating its programs, seeking options that would attract students and give them as close to a typical college experience as possible. That helps retention by letting students learn at their own pace and in their own preferred framework.
The school has created five primary programs that assist students in various stages of their studies, including some that start before they ever formally enroll.
It’s an effort to prepare them for what’s in store, which can help students stick with a program longer.
“We don’t stay static,” Morris-Wood said. “We take research and experience into account to ensure families have the best experience here.”
Another factor the school takes into consideration is social activities and providing a dynamic social life.
Beacon College last year expanded and enhanced its team athletics programs and also frequently expands its student organizations. The school now offers more than 30 options for students to experience club life.
“More students stay because they feel like they are a part of something,” Morris-Wood said. “They take pride in being at Beacon and make lifelong friends. Many come for the academics but stay because of the community they have developed.”
The recent retention success for Beacon College has not come out of nowhere, either.
Even during the pandemic, when average retention rate across the country took a dip, Beacon stayed consistently above 80 percent.
Morris-Wood said that came primarily from the top, as Beacon College President George Hagerty prioritized finding ways the school could thrive during the pandemic.
The first step toward achieving that was helping families understand just how tough a four-year timeline would be under those stressful conditions.
Once that was established, school leaders wanted to keep students and families focused on finishing their degrees or at least keeping education a priority during the shutdown.
A break in education can be more problematic for people with learning differences than most.
The six-year graduation rate for students with learning differences nationally sits at about 50 percent. For others, that rate is at 68 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
So, Beacon College implemented new rules to control the pandemic locally, including limiting visitors, holding remote finals and holding classes outdoors.
The result was what Morris-Wood called “The Beacon Bubble.”
“It showed the strength of the college and what we can do when we break down silos across departments,” he said. “It took the entire community.”
Outside of the campus, the school crafted partnerships with businesses and Leesburg city leaders, along with Lake County officials.
The precautions appear to have worked.
The school recorded just one documented coronavirus case, despite continuing to educate hundreds and keeping about 400 students and faculty on their mission.
“Not every student required the same level of academic support,” Morris-Wood said. “That’s why we don’t have a prescribed model. It’s based off of a student’s demonstrated need.”
Although Morris-Wood remains impressed that Beacon continues to retain students, he said seeing that level of success during a pandemic has him excited for what’s to come.
“When you add in that component, it’s beyond remarkable and it defies statistics,” he said. “The Beacon model is student-centered and, as long as we focus on that, I think retention can sustain.”