Posted on 26 October 2013.
By Erin Timmons
Bense speaks on UWF data errors.
As administrators work to transform the University of West Florida’s reputation from a commuter school to a major player in the State University System, mistakes from previous academic years are being addressed in order to prevent them from being repeated.
“There is no doubt that we have not been perfect,” Bense said. “Students can rest assured that the administration is rectifying the problems and continuing to move this university forward.”
Despite articles in the Pensacola News Journal and The Voyager that demonstrated a decline in academic qualifications of incoming freshmen, Bense has confidence in the credibility of the university.
During the 2006-2007 academic year, 38 percent of incoming freshman had a GPA of 3.75 or higher, with 3.55 being the average. The average GPA of the 2011-2012 freshman class declined to 3.23, and only 13.9 percent had a GPA of 3.75 or higher.
Questions were raised due to 2012-2013 Common Data Set, an annual report of the demographic and academic composition of the student body, when the GPA of incoming freshman increased from an average of 3.22 during the 2011-2012 academic year.
The average GPA of incoming freshmen was reported as 3.40 for the 2012-2013 incoming freshman class, with 23.76 percent having a GPA of 3.75 or higher.
“The numbers weren’t inflated,” Bense said. “There were bad practices that were passed along, but we’re darn serious about addressing them and halting them immediately.”
President Bense points to the Great Recession as the trigger for attention focused on the makeup of the student body. This includes enrollment statistics, graduation statistics and demographical information.
“During every recession or depression, the entities that fund higher education, meaning the legislature and the students, want to know, ’What have you done for us lately?’ ”Bense said. “During times of economic prosperity, the legislature acts as if you should let anyone into the university.”
With pressure to increase enrollment prior to the recession, administrators stopped following general admissions procedures, such as not admitting a student who would be required to take two remedial courses.
“We have now stopped that, which reduced the amount of freshmen we admitted and enrolled,” Bense said. “But the freshmen we have in the 2013-2014 academic class are far more prepared to succeed.”
Susan McKinnon, former associate vice president for enrollment affairs, encouraged the university to use a recruiting company, Royall & Co., that would contact potential students and provide a faster application process.
Through the use of this company in 2011, UWF saw the 2011-2012 academic year begin with record breaking enrollment numbers, with 12,823 students attending the university.
McKinnon resigned in November 2012 amidst concerns from the university that her work as an advisor to Royall & Co. was a conflict of interest.
When asked if McKinnon, former associate vice president for enrollment affairs, who resigned in November 2012, played a role in these bad practices becoming a part of the administrative culture, Bense said, “She did play a part in that.”
McKinnon could not be reached for comment.
Calculations and confusion
The Common Data Set is an annual report compiled by the Institutional Research office, which organizes and analyzes data on the student body of the university. The Common Data Set for the 2012-2013 academic year was reviewed multiple times.
Dottie Minear, senior associate vice president for Academic Affairs, said that the review was necessary to “clarify data definitions.”
“Many of the data elements used for reporting both federal and state data differ in how the elements are defined,” Minear said in an email.
“For example, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System counts only those students who are taking courses for credit whereas the State University System utilizes all students enrolled,” Minear said. “IPEDS, but not SUS, excludes those students who are auditing courses or those who are dual enrolled (high school students taking college courses while still in high school).”
Prior to the 2013-2014 academic year, UWF calculated the high school GPAs of first-time incoming freshmen using a different method that did not align with the State University System.
“The way we calculated the GPA was through using a set of courses – English, math, foreign language, history, science – basic studies courses that are more serious,” Bense said. “The Board of Governors uses the district GPA. They take every course and every grade into consideration. A freshman could have a 3.8 high school GPA, but that would be reflective of all the easier and activity courses as well.”
Beginning summer 2014, UWF will begin using the District GPA method of calculating GPAs to align with the requirements set forth by the Board of Governors and the State University System of Florida.
“The District GPA is the weighted GPA found on all Florida Public School transcripts. It is calculated using all grades received in academic core and elective courses,” Minear said. “The District GPA will be pulled from all Florida Public High School transcripts and will be used for the ‘Admission GPA’ and the ‘Final GPA’ recorded in the student information system.”
Cleaning up data
Provost Martha Saunders credits antiquated data collection and storage methods with preventing administrators of having a clear view of campus statistics.
“We had data stored all over the campus, but the various departments couldn’t view each other’s,” Saunders said. “We’re going to be working with our institutional support department, ASPIRE, to implement Banner, a new data-gathering system. It will enable us to capture data and to allow one side of the campus to view what the other is doing far easier than before.”
As the university prepares for itsaccreditation visit from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Saunders said handling enrollment changes and implementing new data systems meant that data needed to be reviewed multiple times.
“It’s really simple. This was not an intentional snarl,” Saunders said. “It’s what happens when you’re changing procedures and attempting to clean up and make sure you have pristine data. We want to ensure that when we give a report that it is always consistent, no matter what time of day you happen to look at it.”
Focus on freshmen
President Bense said the university’s renewed focus on the academic performance of freshmen during their first semester of the 2012-2013 academic year caused the retention rates of those freshmen to their sophomore year to improve.
“Freshmen are the most vulnerable during their first semester,” Bense said. “If you can monitor their academic work and behavior a little better, you are more likely to get them to be able to succeed.”
Prior to the 2012-2013 academic year, the early warning system only looked at freshmen that were in academic trouble at the middle of the semester, around midterms. If a student was performing poorly at this point in the semester, their chances of improving their grades were slim.
Administrators have changed the early warning system to now look at freshmen during the fourth week of the semester, around the time most professors give their first exam.
According to Bense, the number of freshmen who passed their courses increased from the academic year prior to the change.
“We focused on freshmen in the fall and ramped up the support we had in place for them,” Bense said. The increase in the amount of freshmen students continuing to their sophomore year proves to me that we can improve our retention rates overall, and we are.”
Amid continuous change and the occasional bad press coverage, university administrators say they are working to implement changes that will benefit the growth of the university and the quality of life for its students.
“While our goals are what the university should have, we’re in a real serious transition period going from a commuter school to a real traditional university,” Bense said. “We’re on a good path, and it is a much different institution than it was 10 years ago, but we can’t expect perfection. “
Associate Professor William Belko is chief negotiator for United Faculty of Florida at UWF, and said the university’s image has taken a hit after scrutiny and speculation has surrounded admissions and enrollment.
“President Bense’s admissions fiasco certainly hurt the university,” Belko said. “Especially when considering that the president’s office actually appeared to blame the faculty for the retention problem.”
“I am certain, however, that the new Provost has remedied the situation, and we can look forward to some good years ahead, with steady admissions of qualified and deserving students,” Belko said. “I and a great many of my fellow colleagues are all looking forward to teaching the incoming classes and seeing that they receive the best higher education possible.”
Bense said that her administrative team is prepared to handle the challenges that will come their way as they look to improve enrollment and student life without decreasing the value of education.
“Academic standards of this university are not going to be lowered, and we’re going to accept students into this university that are increasingly college-ready,” Bense said. “We’re going to do our dead-level best to put our arms around them and give them a good education and some fun along the way.“