By: 
Marcia Layton Turner
Honoree: 
Indiana University Southeast

Oreo cookies and calzones have taught us that the middle is the most important part. The same goes for first-year student percentiles, say leaders at Indiana University Southeast.

“We needed to boost our first-year student interventions,” Jason Meriwether, vice chancellor for enrollment management and student affairs, says thinking back to 2013. Student enrollment and retention figures had incrementally declined.

There seemed to be a higher-than-average percentage of first-year students leaving for other colleges or employment—or because they discovered they could not afford to stay at the university.

An in-depth study conducted by faculty found that many otherwise qualified students left because they had lost crucial financial aid. Often, they didn’t know the course credit requirements for keeping it, or they felt disconnected and academically overwhelmed.

While many school have programs directed at high- and low-achieving students, Indiana University Southeast felt “middle” students—the majority—could benefit most from additional support.

“We realized that students in the middle had the greatest capacity to perform, and they just needed to be aware of what we offered,” says Meriwether.

Administrators developed a program specifically to support struggling first-year students. FYRST (First Year Retention and Student Transition) mainly targeted students who needed guidance in managing their time and money. But students also needed to know that the university cared about them.

The solution? Encourage professors to connect with freshmen who had received academic flags or warnings. “Direct intervention from faculty was the most important aspect of creating a successful program,” says Meriwether.

Academic intervention helped students improve their grades and form stronger ties to campus—but it didn’t solve the course credits problem. So the university offered students incentives to make up course credits over the summer.

The effort quadrupled the number of online summer school programs offered, to 191, and offered a $150 grant to defray the cost of books when students registered for at least six hours of summer courses.

The institution has seen a revenue increase of $539,083 from its target population taking summer courses, as well as an approximate 2 percent improvement in spring attrition rate since 2013, due in large measure to FYRST.

Into the future

  • Thanks to a $245,000 grant from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, Indiana University Southeast added a career development component to FYRST, brought in outside speakers and expanded the program’s financial literacy module. More recently, a persistence coordinator was added.
  • Now officials are looking for more grant funding to continue to enhance FYRST.