On the Leading Edge

Behind the scenes, a team of innovative, tech-savvy educators are transforming MTSU into a national model for student success

By Allison Gorman

When prospective Blue Raiders tour MTSU’s School of Music, academic advisor Brad Baumgardner, who is also an adjunct professor in the school, delivers this challenge to their parents: “Wherever else you’re going, ask the music department what their year-to-year retention rate is. If they can’t tell you, they’re not tracking. If they’re not tracking, they don’t care. Now, ask me about our retention for music majors.” He waits a beat. “From fall to fall, it’s 90 percent.”

The phrase “90 percent retention rate” might not sound sexy, but it’s music to the ears of these parents. With the cost of college, their kids can’t afford not to graduate, especially if they have student debt.

Yet American universities suffer from chronic attrition. About a third of college freshmen don’t return for a second year. Universities have tried various strategies to keep students on a path to graduation, but nationally the six-year completion rate hovers at 57 percent.

Attrition isn’t just expensive for students. Universities take a hit too—especially in Tennessee, which in 2010 began using outcomes rather than enrollment numbers to calculate higher education funding. At that time, a 3,000-student freshman class at MTSU could expect to lose 900 students its first year. Only half the class would graduate within six years.

Suddenly, that 1,500-student exodus represented lost state funding on top of lost tuition fees.

“That clearly had an invigorating effect on our student success efforts,” University Provost Mark Byrnes said.

“Now the ever-decreasing amount of state funding we have is going to be based on how well we do. That was the impetus behind the Quest.”

Launched by MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee in 2013, the Quest for Student Success radically rethought the University’s approach to attrition. While MTSU has always targeted at-risk populations for support, the new Office of Student Success (OSS) is boosting every student’s chance to succeed. Working collaboratively, the University has overhauled student advising, developed fresh options for academic help, and redesigned courses that are traditional stumbling blocks to graduation. At the same time, it’s using predictive analytics—an approach more commonly associated with health care than higher ed—to fight attrition in a highly surgical way.

Predictive data can help identify students who are at statistical risk of attrition even if they don’t fit into traditionally “at-risk” populations. Armed with this knowledge, faculty and advisors can watch them to spot any problems early and get them back on track.

The results of the Quest have been dramatic, and it has become a standard by which other such initiatives are measured. In 2017, MTSU was one of just 45 American universities invited to join Re-Imagining the First Year, an initiative sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to help other institutions improve their student success too.

Vice Provost Rick Sluder came to MTSU in the fall of 2014, charged with implementing the Quest for Student Success. Within months, every college in the University was reporting record persistence rates: The total number of students who had stayed in school from fall to spring beat the previous year’s total by 400. By the fall of 2015, MTSU’s year-to-year retention rate had increased by 3 percent to 73.7 percent, its highest level in 15 years. In fall 2016, it rose again, to 76.1 percent. The national media noticed. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington Post, New York Times, and a dozen other outlets have since profiled MTSU and its Quest for Student Success.

In 2015, MTSU received the Data-Driven Impact Award from EAB, the Washington-based consulting firm that provides data analytics. Since then, Sluder has kept MTSU on the leading edge of student success, said Lindsay Miars, a director with EAB. “Rick is my research subject because of all the cool things MTSU has been doing,” she said.

As MTSU’s retention numbers and national profile grow, so do the requests for Sluder and his Office of Student Success colleagues—Brian Hinote, associate professor and administrative fellow, and Vincent Windrow, associate vice provost for student success—to explain the Quest’s robust results.

They credit University leadership and especially faculty and advisors, who’ve done much of the heavy lifting. “We’re just worker bees over here,” Sluder said. But he acknowledges that he, Hinote, and Windrow have camaraderie and complementary talents that serve their mission well.

Sluder, who previously managed student success initiatives at the University of Central Missouri, shares an interest in data analytics with Hinote, a Sociology professor with a background in quantitative methods, health care, and analytics. Hinote works with faculty and advisors; Windrow (formerly MTSU’s director of Intercultural and Diversity Affairs) oversees student support programs and encourages students to use the help available to them, among other duties.

Richard Sluder, Dean, University College, Vincent Windrow, Assistant Vice Provost for Student Success, and Brian Hinote, Administrative Fellow, Office of Student Success in the Miller Education Center.

Together, the three are taking a multifaceted approach to student success. Each facet is data-informed, reflecting best practices in higher education.

“There’s no one path to success, but there’s an old Chinese proverb, ‘The track of the previous cart is the teacher of the following cart,’ ” Hinote said. “Analytics helps us identify what tends to be a successful path for students.” Data can’t and shouldn’t supplant the experience of advisors or faculty, but it can give them new insights to work more effectively with students, he adds.

Billy Pittard, chair of the Department of Media Arts, knows a thing or two about digital design. In early 2013, when McPhee was discussing the Quest with departmental faculty, Pittard floated his idea for a digital platform that would collect basic student information—major, advisor, GPA, transcript, contact information, photo—and aggregate it into individual student profiles. As it was, Pittard said, he could find that information “everywhere, but nowhere in one place.” He got his wish in late 2014, when MTSU unveiled a new web-based platform called SSC Campus. “When I look at a student profile . . . I get this picture of what that student’s about, what they’re struggling with, and what they’re really good at. Now I’m in a position to help them,” Pittard said.

Pittard is one of many faculty members who use SSC Campus as a convenient reference tool when they meet with students and as a way to communicate and coordinate with students and advisors. The platform is more than a friendly interface, however. It’s also an early warning system, signaling when a student might be heading off track.

It’s well established that some student populations are vulnerable to attrition from day one. Hence the standard outreach to first-generation and Pell-eligible students, as well as freshmen with lower ACT scores. But even established college students who don’t fit any “at-risk” demographic and appear to be chugging along in school can have subtle warning signs in their academic record, Miars said. For example, sophomores and juniors with GPAs between 2.0 and 3.0 have a disproportionately high dropout rate.

“Because they’re not getting targeted support for being on probation or targeted praise for doing really well, they often get ignored by the institution,” EAB’s Miars explained.

These average students, known as “the murky middle,” can fall through the cracks before anyone notices to intervene. That’s the sort of trend EAB’s data scientists study. Pulling from 475 million course records provided by the 500 member institutions of EAB’s Student Success Collaborative, they isolate specific academic patterns linked with failure or success in college—whether that’s making a certain grade in a certain class, or taking certain classes in a certain order. Using those subtle historical trends, EAB helps universities like MTSU build predictive risk models based on a decade of their own student data.

SSC Campus, which EAB developed, can filter students by any combination of risk-related patterns or factors—academic or demographic. The results can be used to target groups of  students for communication, or to identify individual students who merit closer monitoring. For example, a first-generation student who lives off campus and made a D in History 2020 (more on that later) would have three risk factors and, thus, a moderate to high risk of attrition, Hinote said.

Predictive modeling “is not a crystal ball, but it’s good at putting us on the trail of . . . students who might be at risk of having problems,” he said.

Baumgardner, from the School of Music, said he can now help scholarship students boost a borderline grade before they lose academic eligibility. “That can be make-or-break for them,” he said. “It’s dropping out of school for 1,500 bucks.”

Baumgardner is one of 47 new advisors MTSU hired (a significant investment McPhee made during a period more marked by budget tightening) when it restructured a patchwork system that had offered mostly transactional relationships between advisors and students. So is Suzanne Hicks, an advisor in the College of Basic and Applied Sciences (CBAS), where the average advising load there dropped precipitously.

Hicks said with an ideal 300 students, she now has time to get to know her advisees and offer interventional support at the first sign of a problem. If the tough STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum still threatens to derail their graduation, she can help them recalibrate. She’s been training on Degree Works, new software that gives students a “roadmap” to graduation and lets advisors gauge the impact of changing course.

Again, external observers have taken notice. For its comprehensive use of technology to boost student success, MTSU won a $225,000 Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) grant, funded by the Gates Foundation and awarded by EDUCAUSE, a Washington nonprofit. Ana Borray, director of learning for EDUCAUSE, said, “MTSU is a fabulous example of something very well done.”

Anatomy and Physiology is traditionally a “high-DFW course”—meaning lots of D’s, F’s, and withdrawals. Few students would sit through it twice if they’d aced it the first time. But Seneka Robertson, a sophomore Exercise Science major, did just that last spring. She was a Supplemental Instruction leader, one of 36 students paid to attend high-DFW courses in which they themselves have excelled. Through voluntary review sessions, leaders help their classmates understand and retain challenging material. Robertson attended SI sessions “all the time” when she took Anatomy as a freshman; without them, she said, she would have made a B or C.

Adopted by MTSU as part of the Quest, Supplemental Instruction is another data-informed strategy: Regular participants historically see a half- to a full-letter grade improvement on their exams. SI has worked so well at MTSU that Hinote expanded it from 21 to 70 course sections over just two years.

A big focus of SI has been predictive courses, those in which a student’s grade can forecast overall academic success, regardless of major. MTSU’s most predictive course is History 2020 Survey of United States History II, Sluder said. Some 80 percent of students who make an A graduate, compared to 40 percent of students who make a D. Hinote said it makes sense to invest SI resources in predictive courses like History 2020, which are often “gateway” courses with large enrollment streams from many majors.

Predictive modeling “is not a crystal ball, but it’s good at putting us on the trail of . . . students that might be at risk.”

—Brian Hinote

RIM 3000 History of the Recording Industry doesn’t fit those criteria, but it has tripped up so many Recording Industry students that department chair Beverly Keel requested SI for the course. She said the peer-to-peer model has been highly effective in helping students learn the huge volume of information the required course covers.

“SI leaders are part of your class—they’re hearing the same things you are, so you can learn it and interpret it better,” Keel said. “That’s better than meeting with a tutor who’s outside your learning community.”

Biology Department chair Lynn Boyd said SI is effective, but in CBAS, the overachievers actually use it most; struggling students respond best to course-specific tutoring. “We use tutoring more than any other college,” she said.

The Office of Student Success has them covered, establishing the Tutoring Spot in Walker Library, with satellite locations that include CBAS. Specific tutoring is provided for 180 courses and is coordinated by Cornelia Wills, director of Student Success.

When Megan Berry (’17) was a freshman, early academic setbacks left her feeling “discouraged and incompetent.” But Scholars Academy, which offers mentoring, tutoring, and other support to Pell-eligible and first-generation freshmen, helped her overcome those setbacks, keep her grades up, and get involved on campus. She became an SA peer mentor, a student orientation assistant, a campus tour guide, and eventually homecoming queen. “It means the world to have a program that allows students with the odds seemingly stacked against them to feel empowered and as if they’re going to succeed at the university level,” she said.

Windrow ran Scholars Academy before he joined the OSS; since then, he’s scaled it way up, from 28 participants to 351. (His goal is 500.) Between 2013 and 2016, SA participants had an 80.9 percent first-year retention rate, seven points higher than non-participating freshmen, he said.

Nearly half of all incoming freshmen at MTSU are Pelleligible and/or first-generation. The Quest has enabled Windrow to double down on effective programs for at-risk groups like these while developing new initiatives too. REBOUND, launched in 2015 for freshmen who “shot and missed” (making below a 2.0) their first semester, is already putting up good numbers: Participants are 50 percent more likely to return the next year than qualifying students who don’t participate.

“ For many of our students, education will be the vehicle that they

  will place their families in to move to a different level of society.”

—Vincent Windrow, MTSU assistant vice provost

A planned initiative for black male students, who have MTSU’s lowest retention rate, will focus on assimilation. “What we know is, if they’re on the outside of the community, a slight breeze will blow them away,” Windrow said.

The Quest has only strengthened MTSU’s longstanding commitment to diversity and the long-held conviction that MTSU has a moral responsibility to give every student the best shot at succeeding. “For many of our students, education will be the vehicle that they will place their families in to move to a different level of society,” Windrow said.

Statistically, all students benefit from a diverse population, according to a Feb. 22 report in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Data shows “that some of the sharpest student gains happen at regional public universities—institutions that prize opportunity above exclusivity,” it read.

For four years, the scene in Stephen Decker’s Public Speaking class played out like this: He lectured for 70 minutes, and his students fell asleep. (“The frontal lobe goes numb after about 15 minutes,” he observed.) In 2014, he “flipped” his classroom. Now, his lectures are the homework: 15-minute videos he posts online. And what used to be homework—research, group projects, outline development—happens during class, with his input. In his flipped classroom, he said, “the outlines are better, the speeches are better, the grades are better, their attitude is better.”

It was Decker’s decision to flip his classroom, but the impetus behind the change was the overarching Quest for Student Success.

Funding was provided to redesign 27 courses, among them the 10 most predictive, representing some 13,000 students, Sluder said. “That’s no small matter. If students don’t have a great experience in those courses, things go amiss from the start,” he said.

When it comes to student success, the classroom is where the rubber meets the road, according to Sluder. “You can get advisors and bring in analytics; all those things will help.

But in the end, if there’s something that’s not happening in the classroom, it’s just not going to work,” he said.

As the culture of best practices takes hold, MTSU faculty have voluntarily redesigned at least 100 courses.

Which leads us to the “next big thing” in student success—something Sluder is often asked about, since data analytics is the big thing now.

“It’s faculty,” he said. “Making sure they have the support they need to do their work in the best way possible.”

Looks like MTSU is on the leading edge again. MTSU

To read this story and others see the current edition of MTSU Magazine here.