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Given declining enrollment and low graduation and retention rates, Lincoln University is working to recruit more freshmen and better monitor and assist its first-year students.

The university has had some success in a particular program for at-risk students, according to the school's president.

Only half of LU's full-time freshmen return the next fall as sophomores to continue their studies, according to federal education data.

Of the full-time freshmen who began their college career at LU in fall 2012, only 21 percent graduated within six years, while 38 percent transferred out.

Only 9 percent of LU's full-time, first-time freshmen graduate within four years.

Not only do few LU students graduate in a timely manner — if they stay at LU to graduate — the university's enrollment has also been slipping.

LU's fall semester enrollment declined for most of 2012-19 — from 3,388 in 2012 to 2,478 in 2019, according to the most recent audit of Lincoln's finances.

Fewer enrolled students directly affects LU's budget, which significantly depends on revenue from students. More than 44 percent of Lincoln's 2019 operating revenues came from students' tuition and fees, not counting room and board.

While tuition and fees remained steady from 2018-19, LU lost $1 million in tuition and fees from 2017-18 "as a result of a decrease in enrollment despite a 2 percent increase in tuition and fee rates," according to a previous financial audit.

Lincoln's President Jerald Jones Woolfolk wants the university to increase the number of new students brought in and increase the school's retention rate.

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High school recruiting

"For us, the immediate priority in terms of working with high schools is to get in them and be very aggressive in our recruitment of high school students. We have not been as aggressive as we could have been over the last several years," Woolfolk said.

"We have hired more recruiters, and we have hired a recruiter that is specifically assigned to Jefferson City and the surrounding areas right here in Mid-Missouri, because I don't believe we have put enough focus on our home area" of the contiguous counties around Cole — including Boone, Callaway, Moniteau and Osage, she said.

"Our enrollment of students from Mid-Missouri has declined significantly over the years," Woolfolk said, though she could not immediately give specifics.

"I hope that we're doing a better job in our recruitment efforts to let these students know that if they come to Lincoln, there are scholarship dollars available for them," she added.

There are LU scholarships available for high school graduates in the Mid-Missouri area through the Heart of Missouri Scholarship — open to students who reside in Boone, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Maries, Miller, Moniteau, Morgan and Osage counties.

Students with the scholarship receive $1,000 per semester for up to eight consecutive semesters, not including summers, but the scholarship cannot be combined with curators, presidential, institutional, dean's or employee tuition benefits.

Woolfolk said the current Mid-Missouri recruiter has been on the job about two months, after the previous recruiter who worked last semester decided not to do it anymore.

"In all of our areas (that Lincoln draws students from), we would like to see 5-10 percent increases" within the next three to five years, Woolfolk said.

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Prepared incoming students

In addition to bringing more students in, "Lincoln should begin to determine how to best collaborate with high schools to better prepare incoming freshman classes for (the academics and sociality of) college life," according to one of the recommendations of a report LU received last year.

The Wesley Peachtree Group — a CPA firm based in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, Georgia, that specializes in higher education and historically black colleges and universities — reviewed Lincoln's fiscal operations, separately from the university's audit by BKD CPAs & Advisors. Last year, Peachtree issued findings and recommendations, including on enrollment.

Peachtree's report also included the recommendation that LU's financial aid office should improve communication with students to remind them about financial aid deadlines and inform them of resources on financial literacy.

Woolfolk last week gave a compounded figure that half of Lincoln's students do not graduate in eight years; that's a sum of the percent of students who graduate in four, six or eight years.

Technically, that's a slight underestimate; by adding up federal data, 54 percent of LU undergraduate students who started in 2010 graduated within eight years.

Either way, many students have their financial aid eligibility reach its expiration date before they can graduate.

"We have not fully implemented what the Peachtree report is talking about, but what we are doing is paying more attention to going into the high schools and talking with the counselors and talking with the principals. I, personally, and Mr. (Carlos) Graham, we visited and talked with the principals and counselors at Jefferson City High School. We've been to Helias (Catholic High School), we've been to Blair Oaks," Woolfolk said.

Graham is Lincoln's chief of staff.

Woolfolk added: "We've had several institutions come here, particularly the counselors and principals, and we are also developing a counselors and principals workshop that we want to bring them to the campus and talk to the counselors about what it takes for students to be successful in college, at the university, and develop those relationships with them."

She said last year was also the first year for a "Blue Tiger Academy — "a program for students who score 17 and below on the ACT, where we give them some very hands-on experiences. We mentor them; they have tutors. They have living and learning communities, and what we saw last year is we brought in I think 40 students for that Blue Tiger Academy. And as I recall, 36 of them had averages of C or better, so they went into the fall semester knowing that they could be successful with 12 hours."

Four of the 40 students dropped out of the program, she said.

"We're hoping to expand that program this year, and our goal is to get 150 students in that program. We're trying to start with them early, particularly in the summer, when there's not as much activity going on, and having people, faculty and staff that are working directly with them, to help them know — and I always talk about this — that Lincoln has a culture of caring, and people want you to be successful," she said.

LU is an open enrollment institution, which means there are no minimum standardized college admissions test scores required for being accepted. However, "generally, if you (score) under a certain score, you're going to be at-risk," and Woolfolk said students with ACT scores of 17 and below are invited into the Blue Tiger Academy.

"Before the Blue Tiger Academy, many first-time freshmen, first-generation students were coming to summer school, but they were being summer-schooled, and when they finished summer school, they were already on academic probation." Woolfolk said. "That's not good."

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Focus on first-year students

Woolfolk also said Lincoln's Student Success Center, which primarily works with first-year students, has been expanded "where we can monitor students. And we are putting in new software where we can look at a student and see the student's grades. We can see if they're going to class, and we start monitoring them from day one. We don't wait until mid-term."

If there's signs a student is slipping, the Student Success Center will call the student in and figure out what's going on.

"Their grades could be reflective of some personal issues that they're going through," she said. "We know that there's food insecurity among students. There are a lot of things that are going on with students, and so we want to be proactive in monitoring students because we already know that many of our students are coming to us under-prepared.

"They're coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Many of them are first-generation students — not all of them. Some of them are top students," Woolfolk said.

"Those (top) students are generally going to be OK, but it's the students who don't have this college experience, and don't have the social and the cultural capital that they need to have in order to be successful (that are at risk).

"I believe, and I think most of us believe, that it's our responsibility to help them to build that positive self-esteem to help them know that they can be successful and give them those opportunities."

Woolfolk said some of the expanded monitoring by the Student Success Center is already in place, "but it will be even more intrusive next year" when software is up and running.

"It's not to be intrusive in (students') personal life," she said, "but to be intrusive in their academic life, to make sure that they achieve the goals that they came here to achieve."

That won't take more staff, but using existing "success coaches" to be more proactive with groups of students who will be assigned to them, Woolfolk said.

She said people often talk about millennials or members of Generation Z being independent. However, "many of them are not, and many of them are not prepared for adulthood, and being out here having to make their own decisions," she said. "So I always say, 'I will hold your hand until you learn to walk.'

"I think that's what Lincoln has always been about, valuing the students that we have and making sure that we give them everything that we have, all the tools they need to be successful," she said.

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