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Outlook on Student Success: Blending academics and life lessons

University Business, January 2016
Student success is the top priority for 84 percent of the campus leaders who responded to a UB survey.
Student success is the top priority for 84 percent of the campus leaders who responded to a UB survey.

Students, of course, have lives beyond the classroom. That’s why campus success initiatives in 2016 will spread further beyond the classroom and academic sectors, engaging students in a spectrum of activities and support designed to steer them toward a meaningful diploma and fulfilling life after graduation.

Highlighting this trend is Texas Woman’s University, which just launched a wide-ranging initiative that focuses on students’ well-being, everything from nutrition to outdoor activities to mental health.

“If we only pay attention to the words we teach, that only reaches a small percentage of what a student captures and internalizes,” says President Carine Feyten. “What about everything else they learn on campus? How can we make everything else meaningful so it transforms their life when they graduate?”

The university is gathering input on how the underused campus golf course could host more activities. And Feyten envisions a blending of the classroom and personal, where literature instruction, for instance, is designed to teach texts that could help students with some of the issues they will deal with as they become more independent.

“It may not be a careerist approach, but it’s a real-life approach,” Feyten says.

Trending/Fading

What’s trending

  • Living/learning communities
  • Applied learning experiences
  • Undergraduate research
  • Intrusive advising
  • Structured pathways
  • Embedding learning experiences into students’ campus jobs
  • Digital portfolios
  • Bilingual admissions staff and advisors
  • Virtual counseling

What’s fading

  • Traditional text-based transcripts
  • Online learning for first-generation students
  • Seeing diversifying admissions as a goal in itself—focus must be on success of minority students

Across higher education, institutions are blending instruction and extracurricular lives. Living/learning communities, data-driven advising and academic pathways, among other progressive initiatives, have produced results at enterprising two- and four-year institutions—and will therefore see more widespread adoption across higher ed.

Eliminating student achievement gaps

The future of student success lies in crunching vast amounts of academic and financial data to personalize support for students. That is why officials at Georgia State University—which has become a bit of superstar in student success circles—believe it’s one of the few large urban schools to close the achievement gap, says Vice Provost Timothy Renick, who is also vice president for enrollment management and student success.

“We’re providing lower-income, at-risk students with the day-to-day support that students who are better positioned economically, from multi-generation-college families, have naturally,” Renick says.

As many other institutions have done, Georgia State has set up an early alert system to catch students who are at risk academically. It tracks 800 different markers. For instance, a student who gets a C or lower in the first course taken in the field of the major has a higher chance of struggling and dropping out. Now, advisors can step in right away and offer tutoring or assistance.

The system also has had a big impact in flagging students who mistakenly take courses that don’t apply to their degree programs. This has greatly reduced the number of wasted credit hours, saving students millions of dollars on tuition, Renick says.

In the last 12 months, the system has spurred about 43,000 interventions.

All this adds up to the following impressive results: Students receiving Pell grants now graduate at slightly higher rates than those not receiving federal assistance. Black students and Latinos also graduate at higher rates than do whites.

So how can an urban university that’s not a well-funded flagship or highly-endowed private school afford this? Renick says it pays for itself in drastically increased retention.

“We’ve been able to invest in new technology and personnel because we are holding on to so many more studs that it brings in a lot of additional revenue,” he says. “These approaches are morally the right thing to do but they’re also the practical and prudent things to do financially.”

Entering the age of acceleration

Among the student success initiatives generating high interest nationwide is The City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). With the ultimate goal of graduating New York City residents in three years or less, ASAP covers all tuition costs not met by Pell Grants and other assistance, and also pays for books and public transportation.

Student success initiatives front and center

It’s more evident than ever before to college and university officials: Implementing and maintaining formal initiatives to boost student success is crucial to higher education leadership.

Among the approximately 100 presidents, chancellors and provosts responding to a UB survey, student success was named a top-four leadership priority for 2016 by 84 percent, beating out nine other potential priorities. In our Outlook on 2015 survey a year prior, student success also won top honors as the biggest campus leadership priority.

And just under three-quarters of respondents to this year’s survey anticipate student success will be even more of a priority in 2016 compared to 2015. Nearly half have plans to pilot or launch a new student success initiative in the coming year.

Only 2 percent of respondents said they don’t have a formal student success effort on campus.

What goals are being addressed in student success programs? Retention and academic success are, not surprisingly, the most popular areas being covered.

But a wide range of topics are a focus for these programs, from career prep to financial literacy and other life skills. Many institutions are developing student success programs for specific at-risk groups, such as first-generation or low-income students.

And within success initiatives, campus leaders are recognizing the importance of academic advising. Fifty-four percent plan to offer students greater access to advising sessions in 2016 than they did in 2015.

Many student success initiatives cross department lines. In a separate survey of 95 admissions, enrollment and financial aid administrators, 62 percent anticipate that collaborative efforts to bolster student success and completion were likely to occur in 2016.

More than 4 in 10, meanwhile, plan to partner with high schools and community colleges to improve college readiness.

“For students to be successful, we’ve got to remove financial barriers,” says Thomas Iseckenegbe, president of Bronx Community College in the CUNY system. “If we provide well-coordinated support services and set high expectations with intrusive advising, students will be successful.”

ASAP students attend full-time and take classes in a cohort so they better get to know their classmates in the program. And block scheduling allows students to arrange classes around work or other responsibilities. Students also meet twice a month with advisors, who help design structured academic pathways of related courses that will earn a certificate or count toward a major at a four-year college.

BCC has piloted ASAP for several years, but next fall the initiative will double in size, from about 900 students to 2,000. The two-year graduation rate for ASAP students is 50 percent, compared to about 20 percent for others.

“It’s the will to spend more money on academic advising,” Iseckenegbe says of the program, adding that not investing in students up front could result in more students depending on the government for assistance later.

Making a big university personal

Administrators at the University at Albany see a future model for other institutions in their success teams, which comprise faculty and staff who play close attention to a student’s life in the classroom and on campus.

Each student’s team consists of their academic advisor, residence hall director and the instructor of their first-year writing and inquiry course. The collaboration between multiple departments—in this case, academic affairs, faculty and student affairs—is another big trend in student success initiatives.

Across higher ed, student success initiatives have brought together campus departments as varied as alumni affairs, health services, dining, enrollment and IT.

“We have a seamless integration between these often siloed areas of undergraduate success,” says Provost James Stellar.

Team members, who meet regularly, can enter information about the student or alert others to academic or personal services that may be needed. The program required a substantial investment—the university hired more writing instructors to keep class sizes below 20 students, Stellar says.

In the fall of 2016, the success teams will have access to more in-depth analytics that can track student engagement. The system will flag students who have stopped going to dining hall or logging into the LMS. “Studentsy love Albany because we’re big but they also want a more personal experience,” Stellar says.

Creating confidence in class and life

A growing number of institutions are proactively supporting at-risk groups such as first-generation students through programs that provide peer mentoring and extra advising.

At the University of Indianapolis, retention has increased by 13 percent among a group of at-risk students who have been encouraged to live on campus with the help of financial aid and institutional dollars, President Robert Manuel says.

These students also live in a suite with—or on the same floor as—a junior or senior who’s from a similar background and who serves as a mentor.

“It wipes the high school out of them more quickly,” Manuel says. “For a lot of students, the quicker they can take control over own decisions and understand the ramifications, the better they are able to progress through their degree.”

On the academic side, the university now considers itself a “three-term entity in two-year cycles,” Manuel says. Summer housing and tuition have been lowered to encourage students to get ahead or catch up. And advisors guide first-year students in plotting a vision for the first two years of their college education. The approach, initially for first-generation students, has been expanded to all students at the university.

Changing language of higher ed

Hiring bilingual student support staff is another way colleges are promoting student success. Georgian Court University in New Jersey, for example, has hired bilingual financial aid and admissions officers, says President Joseph Marbach.

The school, with an enrollment of 2,000, is expecting an increase in Latino students in the coming years. “We think the future is going to be that emphasis on mentoring, whether it’s a faculty member or administrator or staff, so the student feels linkage to the campus,” Marbach says.

Georgian Court also may add a dual Spanish/English track so students gain proficiency in both languages. This would prepare them for new jobs as translators and interpreters in health care, court systems and other industries.

Nourishing student identity

A focus on student well-being and personal contentment makes Keene State College’s new strategic plan stand out, says Anne Huot, president of the New Hampshire institution.

“To have something that really speaks to residential life and student life as a collegewide outcome, I think is relatively unique,” Huot says. “The single highest priority in our strategic plan is to create an integrated academic and co-curricular plan.”

First-year students spend their first Saturday in college doing community service, and are encouraged to continue doing so throughout the year though Keene’s volunteer office. Keene students spent more than 100,000 hours doing community service last year.

In addition, the university has added three positions to its counseling center over the last two years, Huot says. “Often, student retention has more to do with life than it does with academic progress,” Huot says.

Like Keene, more colleges and universities are focusing on student identity as a key part of success efforts, says Susan Albertine, vice president of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Student Success at the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

That could even mean not giving students complete freedom to choose whatever courses they like, but focusing, rather, on their “right to success.” This could entail directing a student toward a specific academic path or into a living/learning community where peers could act as mentors for areas of weakness.

“There’s a lot of interest in student identities in connection with interventions, and giving them choices that allow them to develop and understand themselves,” Albertine says.

Matt Zalaznick is UB’s senior associate editor.