Worcester State University: Looking for CLEWS to Retain the Middle Tier

Mark Wagner, PhD, Director of the Binienda Center for Civic Engagement, Worcester State University

In 2011, I collaborated with Worcester State University’s Director of Director of Residence Life and Housing, Adrian Gage, to design a living learning community called the Community Leadership Experience at Worcester State (CLEWS). Through CLEWS, we aimed to study a cohort from our middle-tier residential students—those coming out of high school in the 2.6–3.2 GPA range—which is the cohort the university loses most readily to transfer and attrition.

We designed CLEWS both to address the issue of retention and to study the results. Our expectation was that we could show improvements in retention and campus leadership. This article outlines the design of our program and our results in the first 5 years.

The Problem

Like many public higher education institutions, WSU has had lower-than-desired retention and 6-year graduation rates (the latter as low as 45% in the past decade, currently at 56%). Renewed attention on retention and academic success has been part of a statewide effort in Massachusetts (and a key feature of The MA Department of Higher Education’s Vision Project), as well as at WSU.

Working closely with then-Provost Charlie Cullum and VP of Academic Affairs Maureen Shamgochian, Adrian and I became interested in addressing retention among the middle tier of students for a number of reasons. We have an Honors program for advanced students and programs for students in need of academic support, but we didn’t know of any programs directed at students in the middle. What’s more, internal studies showed that middle-tier students were more likely to transfer or leave school. 

The CLEWS Approach

In creating our program, we employed ideas from Nel Noddings (Caring, a Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, 1984; Philosophy of Education, 1995), who makes the compelling case that learning happens best in environments where trust and care are the foundations on which cognitive gains are structured. We envisioned the project as a cross-divisional, whole-institution approach to retention and success.

Our method involved inviting 20 students to participate in a program designed around civic learning, leadership, and community engagement. Our study would follow this CLEWS cohort over 5 years in relation to a control group with the same demographics. Assessment would include these areas: retention, graduation, GPA, Dean’s List, and leadership roles (formal and informal).

The program represents a truly collaborative effort. We worked closely with the Office of Enrollment Management and Admissions to identify incoming students who would benefit from our approach. The Office of Residence Life and Housing contributed resources and housing situations suitable for a living learning community. Academic Affairs supported the program with a First-Year Seminar, while Student Affairs and the Binienda Center for Civic Engagement provided leadership and engagement opportunities. Over time, we would gain support from The Office of the President and the WSU Foundation as well.

In addition to the First-Year Seminar, the program included Beyond the Traditional Classroom projects to build social bonds and connections both to the campus and to the wider community. Using an ethic of care and attention, we invested in our 20 students’ relationships to encourage them to remain with us and take on active roles in the community.

Each year we invite a new group of 20 incoming students to join CLEWS; in addition, some students have signed on as volunteers. Our total CLEWS cohort on campus has now reached 120 students.

Program Elements

We employ the following program elements, in varying degress of intensity:

Early Move-In. Each year, we invite both new and returning CLEWsters to move in 3 days prior to the rest of the school. During this early move-in, we hike a mountain (with the university’s president), do a ropes course, go over the year’s calendar, and ask students how they want to define CLEWS. (Students set the criteria for adequate participation.)

First-Year Seminar. The CLEWS cohort begins the year in a seminar that focuses broadly on social change. The seminar familiarizes students with the concept of being a change agent in the world as well as with the school’s academic and co-curricular cultures.

CLEWS Conversations. We hold monthly meetings in which invited guests discuss civic issues with students. We’ve had state auditor Suzanne Bump, Independent Party gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk, and Worcester Black Lives Matter founder Julius Jones, among many other advocates for democratic engagement.

Campus Leadership. We encourage our students to take on leadership roles on campus. This past year, among our CLEWS members were a student trustee, the senate president, and 9 RAs. In addition, CLEWS students have established a club called Woo Serve, which has been active with other colleges and universities and taken a leadership role in Working for Worcester, a citywide service day sponsored by The United Way.

Social Justice. In addition to working on social justice issues at home, each year we take 40 CLEWS students on a field trip to New York City to go to museums and events relating to history and social justice. The WSU Foundation has supported this trip, allowing us to make an overnight stay of it.


After 4 years, our original CLEWS cohort has fared well compared with the control group on most of our assessment measures. The second cohort is expected to show similar results.

                                     CLEWS    Control Group

Retained:                           80%                 70%

Graduated early:               15%                 0

4-year graduation rate:     65%                 35%

Dean’s List:                        45%                 60%

Average GPA:                     2.8                  3.2

Leadership roles:               40%                 NA

These findings show promise. While the control group does better academically, those in the CLEWS cohort are active in the community, are retained at a higher rate, and stay on course for a 4–5 year graduation rate. We believe CLEWS is a strong model that supports the value of caring and investing in relationships in favor of viewing testing or academic measures as the sole indicator of the university’s success.

Student Feedback

Each year we ask CLEWS members to write a brief essay or reflection on what CLEWS has meant to them. Following are selections from two of these essays:

“I have been given many opportunities that I know I would not have been able to take advantage of if I were not a CLEWS member. I was always involved in community service, but now that I am a CLEWS member the meaning of community service has changed…. I have always known that service work is important, but being able to see the impact it has and the difference it makes means that much more to me.”

“CLEWS creates a community that is engaged, and that engagement can take many forms. One of the more recent forms that I have taken part in was a student-organized protest against police brutality in Worcester. As a minority who came from a middle-class family in a town that is predominantly white, I’ve never felt nor noticed the terrible effects of institutionalized racism. However, since studying at WSU, I have begun to think about inequality and justice and how it affects people differently….
           These protests have helped solidify in my mind that I need to uphold a great sense of respect and appreciation for all people. To me this quality is absolutely necessary, especially with the career path that I have chosen. I am a Public Health major, Biology minor student with the aim of going on to medical school. I eventually want to work for an NGO that serves under-represented people and helps to provide them with an equal opportunity to have a healthy and fulfilled life through better healthcare.”

Photo caption: Worcester State University students join U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts (third from left) for Food Justice Day.