A decade ago, Davenport University retained just 60 percent of students from one fall to the next.
After years of steady improvements, Davenport’s retention rate stood at 77 percent as of 2019, and President Richard Pappas wants to push it further upward to more than 80 percent within five years.
The higher retention rate ranks among the achievements that the private, nonprofit Davenport University targets in a new five-year strategic plan known as Vision 2025 that aims to build on improved outcomes of the past 10 years.
“It raises the bar pretty significantly for our expectations of ourselves and of our students and the impact it’s going to have on the communities that we serve,” Pappas said of the Vision 2025 plan that details an array of goals for the university and its colleges.
When Pappas joined Davenport 11 years ago as president, student outcomes “were not as high” as university trustees wanted. He set out to change that with creation of a division on quality and effectiveness, the hiring of a vice president to run the department, and development of key performance indicators based on “what was important to us, what were the things that we were going to measure that tell us that we were doing a good job over time,” Pappas said. That process enabled Davenport to better “know where we are.”
“And if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going,” he said.
Through an emphasis on performance data, metrics, data analytics and market research, Davenport has raised key performance outcomes.
Over the decade from 2009 to 2019, Davenport’s graduation rate increased from a low of 19 percent to 49 percent, rivaling other public and private colleges in Michigan. The Vision 2025 plan targets further improvement in the graduation rate to 55 percent.
Davenport’s satisfaction rate among graduates improved over the decade from 88 percent to 95 percent. The employment rate among graduates has increased as well, to 92 percent as of 2019 compared to 84 percent in 2013.
In driving a higher retention rate, Pappas credits an initiative that provides more support and peer mentoring for first-generation college students “who didn’t have someone to guide them in the past.” The effort works to make sure first-generation students are “making the right choices” and to help them navigate new issues such as scheduling or financial aid that nobody in their family had prior experience with, he said.
“If you’re going to lose your first-generation students, our studies show that you’re going to lose them in the first year, so it’s really key that we have very strong first-year planning for this first generation group,” said Pappas, who calls raising the retention rate “one of the more challenging things in Vision 2025.”
“If we raise that group up, we will raise that (retention rate) into the 80s,” he said.
Davenport today also has a better student mix. In 2009, seven out of 10 Davenport students were adults working on a graduate degree. Today, enrollment is evenly split between adults and traditional college-age students. Graduate student enrollment also has more than doubled to 21 percent of total enrollment.
“We are in a much better shape than we’ve been in a long time,” Pappas said. “We’ve really raised the bar.”
Other changes Davenport has made over the years include closing smaller campuses in Battle Creek and elsewhere where the university could not offer a full schedule. The university also moved campuses in Kalamazoo and Midland into local community colleges and decided not to compete with community colleges for many two-year associate degrees.
In the years after the Great Recession, Davenport’s enrollment spiked to more than 12,000 in 2013, a time when many colleges grew as people who lost their jobs during the economic downturn went back to school. Enrollment then declined in the years after the recession when the economy improved and part-time students went back to work. Other losses stemmed from eliminating many two-year degrees, closing some campuses, and raising admission standards, Pappas said.
Over the last decade, Davenport has launched 24 new degree programs. They include forming new graduate programs in data analytics and cybersecurity, plus bachelor degrees in nursing, occupational therapy, health informatics and information management.
Davenport’s enrollment now stands at about 6,800 students at campuses in Caledonia and Grand Rapids, plus Holland, in Kalamazoo at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Lansing, Midland, Traverse City, Warren, and two in Detroit. More than half of the students are at campuses in West Michigan.
The university’s Vision 2025 aims to find ways to grow Davenport’s enrollment again. Pappas expects the university to exceed 8,000 students within five years under the new strategic plan.
“I do envision enrollment growing again and growing to a good number,” Pappas said. “But really most important to us is are we graduating, are we retaining, and are we placing them in goods jobs? All of it’s important. If you’re enrolling students who aren’t going to be retained, you’re doing them and yourself no good.”
In February, Davenport received the 2020 Michigan Performance Excellence Award from the nonprofit Michigan Performance Excellence (MIPEx), which uses criteria from the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award presented annually by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The state award indicates “that we are definitely on the right track,” said Pappas, who hopes Davenport can win the national Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.