North Carolina’s largest health insurance provider has awarded Elizabeth City State University a $250,000 grant to use lowering the number of students who drop out or temporarily leave school for financial hardship reasons.

Durham-based Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina announced the grant to ECSU earlier this week.

According to a university press release, ECSU will use the funds to set up a Successful Retention Collaborative Task Force. The panel, which will include representatives from a number of university departments including the financial aid office, will then use the BCBS funds to award mini-grants and emergency funding to students contemplating interrupting their pursuit of a degree.

ECSU Provost Farrah J. Ward said completing a degree on time is often a significant challenge for students from low-income families and rural areas, primarily because of their financial circumstances. She said the BCBS grant is designed to help those students stay in school and complete their degree.

“Blue Cross NC’s support will make a major impact on student retention at ECSU,” Ward said. “The task force expects to designate more than 75 awards of at least $1,000, resulting in an increase in the student retention rate and a positive impact on the students.”

To receive funding from the grant, students must demonstrate they are academically capable of maintaining their grade-point average and are on a path to graduation, ECSU said.

Ward said the SRC Task Force will use a “multi-dimensional strategy” over a three-year period to address the needs of students benefiting from the grant and assessing their success.

Information about ECSU’s latest student retention rate was not immediately available Thursday.

However, Ward updated an ECSU trustee committee last fall on the university’s freshmen retention rate, transfer student “persistence” rate, and spring-to-fall “persistence” rate.

The freshman retention rate is the percentage of first-time full-time freshmen who enrolled in a given fall semester and then returned the following fall. The transfer persistence rate is the percentage of transfer students who enrolled during fall semester and returned the following fall.

The spring-to-fall persistence rate is the percentage of students who were enrolled during the spring semester that returned during the fall semester, excluding those students who graduated.

The freshman retention rate dropped to 67.8 percent for freshmen who enrolled in fall 2015 and then increased to 73.9 percent for the cohort that started at ECSU in fall 2016. Since then the rate has declined to 70.9 percent, but Ward pointed out the fall 2018 freshman class was much larger — 416 new freshmen compared with 268 in fall 2015.

ECSU’s transfer persistence rate increased from 63.1 percent for the class that enrolled in 2016 to 75.2 percent for the class enrolling in 2017, and then slid back to 72.8 percent for the class that enrolled in 2018. Ward noted that new transfer enrollment grew from 84 in 2016 to 117 in 2017 and 184 in 2018.

Spring-to-fall persistence has followed a similar track, Ward said, growing from 71.4 percent in fall 2016 to 73.6 percent in fall 2017 to 82.7 percent in fall 2018 and 80.4 percent in fall 2019.

The task force includes Ward; Rosa Adams, a retention specialist; Brian Jordan of Institutional Research and Effectiveness; Teresa Lassiter of Institutional Advancement; Dr. Tarsha Rogers, chair of University Studies; Jeremi Watkins, financial aid director; and Dr. Melinda J. Anderson, interim associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Ward said University Studies under Rogers’ leadership had played an instrumental role in leading the SRC Task Force initiative.