Wayland's freshman class proves education more valued

January 20, 2011

PLAINVIEW – Centuries ago, higher education was often seen as an option only for the elite and affluent. Families did not place as great an emphasis on their children continuing their education past high school as they followed parents into family businesses or trades and joined the working class as providers.

But this is 2011, and higher education is almost becoming more of an expected next step for many high school graduates, with less distinction among classes, ethnic backgrounds and experiences defining the fall incoming classes at universities and colleges.

Wayland Baptist University has seen plenty of that trend over its 100-plus years in existence on the high plains of Texas. And if the enrollment patterns are any indication, students are finding Wayland to be a welcome place to begin that journey into often uncharted territory for their families.

The fall 2010 freshman class at Wayland’s Plainview campus bore that out, as nearly 58 percent of first-time freshmen were classified as “first generation” students. Wayland defines these as students with neither parent having a college degree, though they may have attended college in the past. Only 10 percent of freshmen have both parents as college graduates.

According to Dr. Claude Lusk, vice president of enrollment management at Wayland, the numbers of first-generation students at Wayland is not the norm for most schools, though the numbers are on the rise nationally. The fall numbers represent the largest percentage of first-generation students but those numbers have been high for several years, he noted. In 2004, first-generation students accounted for 52 percent of the freshman class, and in 2007, that number rose to 55 percent.

Lusk noted that the 2010 enrollment also saw the largest number of transfer students to the Plainview campus with 101. And the diversity on campus in terms of ethnicity and religious affiliation continues to grow from year to year. More than one-third – 36.8 percent to be exact – of the freshman class in 2010 was Hispanic, up from 30 percent in 2009.

The high pattern of first-generation students is actually contradictory to the average at four-year institutions nationwide as families in general become more educated. A 2007 study at the University of California at Los Angeles showed that the proportion of first-generation students within the overall population of first-time freshmen has been declining in the U.S. since 1971, when it peaked at 38.5 percent. While attendance at two-year colleges could account for some of the drop, the study suggests that there are simply fewer families without college degrees as the decades have passed.

But at Wayland, the numbers remain above 45 percent for the past seven years, seeming to indicate that the university is doing something right to attract students with little family history of college and to keep them plugged in so they become the first in their family to earn a diploma.

Lusk said programs in place to help with college readiness and skill-building could be one key factor in attracting such students and their parents, who are a big part of the college enrollment process in private education in general. The Academic Achievement Program – which was rare when it began in the 1970s – offers courses to help students brush up on skills they may be lacking before plunging headlong into higher level work.

“Wayland has a history of being academically accessible, willing and prepared to educate students who have some needs in the academic areas and are ill-prepared for college-level work in some areas,” Lusk said. “This is an area of pioneering work for us.”

The key, however, to the consistent draw of first-generation students, Lusk said, is in how the university helps them work through the admissions process, which can be daunting regardless of the school and the background of families. Since first-generations are drawn to WBU, he said it is imperative the school makes getting to that first class as “user friendly” as possible.

“We have to be sensitive to the fact that many students are completely new to this process, so we have to be careful with all the acronyms. It’s easy for us to get comfortable and think everyone understands it all,” Lusk said. “(College) is a language and culture all its own and we can’t forget that.”

Lusk noted that the personal nature of the Wayland experience is beneficial to all students who come through the university’s doors. But first-generation students seem to find it crucial to the transition process.

“It can be easier at a place like Wayland. All freshmen register face-to-face their first year so they make those connections with people and get more engaged,” he said. “We want this to be a journey that is an open book for parents as well, so they can be an encouragement to students along the way.

“The financial aid process can be even more confusing if a family hasn’t been through it, so we have to help them access the aid and information that is out there.”

Lusk said the university purposefully added summer early registration sessions several years ago in an effort to help freshmen walk through their first enrollment with as much guidance and support as possible. Plugging students into faculty mentors, first at the preview events and registration sessions and then in classes, is key, Lusk said, to them being able to see the big picture about their education and future.

“That moment of connecting them academically is key to the retention side of the equation. That’s what puts it all into place for them,” he said. “Sometimes all the other stuff that surrounds the academics can be the most daunting part. But we know that once they get into the academic process, something magical happens for them.”

Motivation to higher education has always been a bit different for first-generation students, and the UCLA study bears that out as well. Over the decades, parent encouragement has steadily risen as a very important reason to attend college. In 2005, 47 percent of first-generation students reported that trend, which is more than double what students in the early 1970s reported.

The study noted that first-generation students also report high motivation to attend college to get a better job (77.3 percent), to make more money (76.4 percent) and to prepare for graduate school (58 percent). Researchers also said those trends mirrored their non-first-generation counterparts for the most part, with making more money coming out a little higher for first-generation students.

Lusk said another key is the longtime encouragement students find as they seek their educational goals and weave through that process. That atmosphere has been a longtime hallmark at Wayland and one everyone from staff through administrators take seriously as they mentor students and support them as they mature and get closer to the degree.

“That encouragement has to be intense here,” he said. “We have to embrace the ‘don’t give up’ conversation on every level.”