Coastal Carolina University will pay bonuses to faculty and staff if the school meets its goals for retaining students.
The university’s board of trustees voted last week to fund an incentives program that includes $300,000 for employee bonuses if the school retains 68 percent of its freshman class. The current retention rate is 67 percent.
Despite grappling with limited state funding and the possibility of a tuition increase, Coastal officials insist the bonuses are needed to keep students in classrooms — and their payments in the university’s coffers.
“It’s trying to get everybody on campus to buy in to retention,” said Eddie Dyer, the university’s chief operating officer. “Retention is important for several reasons. One is we’re judged in Columbia and other places by our retention rate and our graduation rate. And the other is it’s a financial issue. Eighty-nine cents out of every dollar comes from tuition. So the more students we keep, the more money we’ve got to spend.”
Freshman retention has been a challenge for Coastal in recent years. After the recession, the rate dropped to 59 percent. To improve that number, university leaders made some changes. They capped the number of students in introductory math courses at 25. They analyzed the classes with the highest failure rates and made sure students in those courses received mid-term grades to track their progress. They also revised their advising procedures.
So far, the new approach appears to be paying off.
“We’re seeing success,” said Ralph Byington, Coastal’s provost. “But there’s still a lot more to be done.”
That’s where the bonuses come in.
Dyer said the incentives program is merit based and the amount of each bonus depends on the recommendation of an employee’s supervisor. For some, the award might be $500. For others, $300.
“It’s not across the board,” he said.
If Coastal exceeds the 68 percent mark, the pool would expand to a maximum of $400,000, split evenly between faculty and staff.
Along with the bonus money, Coastal officials may spend an additional $1 million on compression raises, which are increases in faculty and staff salaries to bring those employees’ compensation in line with that of their peers at other institutions. The goal is to reward senior professors for their years of service by separating (or decompressing) their salaries from those of new hires, who are paid current rates that are often close to what longtime educators are making.
Stacie Bowie, the school’s chief financial officer, said evaluations are conducted every year to determine the market value of each position. Under the policy the board approved last week, she said retention will now factor into whether those raises are awarded.
“It doesn’t necessarily get funded,” she said. “In this case, if the university does not meet its retention goals, then even if we know that analysis was done and we know that professor X, Y or Z is underpaid by $1,000, they’re not getting anything.”
Coastal President David DeCenzo said tying bonuses and compression raises to retention gives employees an incentive to reach Coastal’s goal.
“It really does put skin in the game for the faculty,” he said, adding that university employees have been supportive of the plan. “There’s no hesitation. I think everybody understands the importance of what retention means.”
“Here’s what we know from our research. If a student will establish a relationship with just one faculty [member] their freshman year, they’re exponentially more likely to come back,” he said. “If we can get faculty to not only do a good job in the classroom, but also to engage students outside the class and be there for them and be a resource for them. That’s a big part of the educational process and it’s a big part of why they come back.”
During last week’s board meeting, some trustees asked why bonuses would be awarded for a mere 1 percent increase in retention, especially since Coastal has already improved that rate by 8 percent in just a few years.
“We did make some tremendous gains from that number,” Byington said. “But I believe those gains will be harder to achieve as we start moving closer to a goal.”
Although school officials’ contend the incentives program makes financial sense, it comes at a time when the board is considering a second straight tuition hike.
Last spring, the board approved an increase of $140 per semester for in-state undergrads and a $335 hike for their out-of-state peers.
Some students are concerned about another increase.
“If they want to retain students, then they don’t need to be raising tuition,” said sophomore Tiffany Higginbottham.
The interdisciplinary studies major is an orphan and the first in her biological family to attend college.
“I don’t really have much financial support, other than myself,” she said, “and so if they keep raising tuition .... it’s going to make it impossible for me to stay here. I’ll have to find an institution that has a lower tuition.”
Coastal board members have said they will wait until they receive a recommendation from state lawmakers before deciding how steep of a tuition hike to approve.
Last fall, school officials asked state leaders for an additional $3 million in recurring funding, hoping the extra money would stave off a tuition increase. However, state officials have not agreed to provide that amount.