This week, President Donahue launches a strategic planning effort that promises to draw on our mission and heritage, our academic distinctiveness, and the recent advances made by institution-wide plans. Affordability for both our students, and for the faculty and staff faced with the high cost of living in the region, will be a central concern to address. Part of our dilemma is that the commitment to provide “immersion in a world of wisdom to create leadership for social justice” (Academic Blueprint 2010) requires fairly extensive staff and faculty support. Providing education that fulfills our mission and closes achievement gaps is costly.
We’ve been focusing on access and student success for years, and in specific, focused ways through the implementation of the Academic Blueprint, our most recent iteration of an academic strategic plan. Through collaborative action and in accordance with shared governance, we have introduced measured changes that have raised our academic profile and contributed to our students’ successes. We have increased financial aid, created robust peer mentoring programs, established and renewed partnerships with community-based organizations, created and expanded summer session, launched new graduate and professional programs, enhanced academic support services and high-impact practices such as undergraduate research, study abroad, service learning and internships, and realized gains in student achievement and satisfaction across faculty, staff, and students. Graduating seniors have continued to express increasing satisfaction with their course work, faculty, staff, and overall college experience at levels significantly above national comparisons to other 4-year Catholic and private institutions. Our National Survey of Student Engagement results are similarly strong, and Saint Mary’s is now comparing favorably to the top 10% of institutions nationally who participate in the survey.
Perhaps most importantly, our efforts have yielded dramatic results in the four-year graduation rate of our undergraduate students, which has risen from 49 percent in 2009 to over 60 percent in 2013. Our underrepresented minority (URM), one-year retention rate has reached a high of 90.2 percent for the last two years, a rate that's higher than the non-URM rate [88.9 percent and 89.0 percent]. One of our highest achieving subgroups, our Hispanic students, now comprise 25 percent of our traditional undergraduate student population and have achieved a 65 percent four-year graduation rate, while at the same time are more likely to hold jobs and contribute financially to their families while in college than their white peers. In fact, financial pressures are the most cited reasons for student attrition at Saint Mary’s. We must work to close this gap.
Our increased retention rate among undergraduate students and modest growth at the graduate level, while laudable and desired, also creates challenges for faculty and staff. We have achieved AACSB accreditation after intense and focused effort. We have made progress in adding full-time faculty, and now have more full-time faculty lines than any time in the past ten years, with an increase from 196 in 2007 to 213 in 2013. At the same time, however, our full-time equivalent (FTE), student-to-ranked faculty ratio has begun to creep up, from 18:1 to over 19:1 since 2007. (Note that other published ratios are sometimes based on all full-time faculty, which lowers student/faculty ratio). We are achieving much with our staff and faculty resources, but we must also be attentive to the workload pressures that have come with this success.
As we address the challenges of affordability and sustainability, our power will continue to lie in our shared commitments and our inclusive community. We are approaching a new institution-wide planning effort from a position of incredible, enviable strength that will require care and wisdom to sustain. I look forward to joining the President and others as we move forward with a process that will be widely consultative and inclusive as it unfolds over the coming months. I hope you will take advantage of the avenues we provide in contributing to this effort as well.