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Theobald brings new focus at first trustees meeting

LARAMIE — The University of Wyoming’s board of trustees first meeting with Neil Theobald as the school’s acting president began Wednesday with the new president leading a discussion on ways UW could improve its graduation rate and become more accessible to Wyomingites.

After the trustees picked him to be acting president, Theobald told the Laramie Boomerang that getting undergraduates to finish school in four years would a priority of his.

This week, the trustees are meeting at Central Wyoming College in Riverton.

After an executive session in the morning, Theobald and David Jewell, associate vice president for financial affairs, explained in a three-hour discussion with the trustees that they expect to spend considerable time in the coming months working on ways to improve UW’s graduation and retention rates.

“This is where we’re going to be putting our time and effort in work days going forward,” Jewell said.

Before being hired by UW in 2018, Theobald had been a long time administrator at Indiana University before becoming Temple University’s president for four years in 2012.

The four-year graduation rates at both universities rose above 50% during Theobald’s time there.

“Something we did a lot at both Indiana and Temple, is making sure that students graduate on time in four years,” he told the Boomerang in May. “The strongest predictor of how much it’s going to cost you to go to college is how long it takes you to graduate. That’s an area I’m really focused on — making sure sure get kids in the right classes, keep them moving forward and get them out in the labor market or off to graduate school in four years.”

As of July 2017, UW had a four-year graduation rate of 25.8%. The school’s five-year strategic plan set a goal of increasing the rate to 33% by 2022.

Theobald and Jewell presented the trustees with student data concerning retention that they thought might provide some ideas on how to make improvements.

Jewell said an analysis of student data from the last six years shows that whether students live on campus, how many credits they take, and their grade-point average “are all significant predictors of first-year retention.”

Theobald said the university might consider ways to encourage students to take at least 15 credits each semester.

He said that, during his time at Temple and Indiana, he introduced a program that promised students free tuition after four years if they took 15 credits a semester and had their schedule approved by an advisor.

“We never paid a penny at either of those two universities,” he said. “When you’re making incentives for 18-year-olds, you want to make them simple like that. Not because 18-year-olds aren’t smart, but because they have so much going on in their lives.”

Trustee Dave True was skeptical of the administrators’ underlying implication that the data means a low course-load is likely to cause a freshman to drop out.

It seemed plausible, he said, that motivated students who are unlikely to dropout simply might be prone to taking a higher load of courses.

Jewell said he’s not yet jumping to conclusion about causation.

“This is a parallel that we want to study more of,” he said. “There’s a lot more homework we need to do.”

Wyoming’s freshman retention rate currently hovers around 80%.

“That’s an obvious place for us to improve,” Theobald said. “At a research university, you should want that to be around 90%.”

Wednesday’s discussion also continued a recent change in philosophy among university leaders about recruiting efforts.

When UW established a five-year strategic plan in 2017, university leaders set a goal of increasing enrollment by more than 1,100 students.

That target was set under the auspices of a goal: “Inspiring students to pursue a productive, engaged and fulfilling life and prepare them to succeed in a sustainable global economy.”

“(The enrollment increase) was measurable that really did not not fit with what we were trying to achieve,” trustee Michelle Sullivan said Wednesday. “In order to achieve our number, we were increasing out-of-state students at the disadvantage of our Wyoming students.”

Sullivan is one of three members on the trustees’ committee dealing with tuition.

That committee has now recommended a different approach to financial aid: One that increases need-based aid for Wyoming students while making it harder for out-of-state students to receive merit-based aid.

Theobald also said UW should “partner with community colleges to encourage transfer to UW sooner.”