An alphabetical look at MTSU’s commitment to student retention and graduation
by Drew Ruble
Governor Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative aims to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with postsecondary credentials from 32 percent to 55 percent to meet the state’s present and future workforce and economic needs.
According to the governor’s office, more than 20,000 Tennessee high school graduates choose not to continue their education each year, and there are approximately 940,000 adult Tennesseans who have some college credit but haven’t earned an associate or four-year degree. The question is: how do colleges and universities in Tennessee do a better job of attracting and retaining college-degree seekers to reach the 55 percent goal?
Every college and university says that student success is its number-one priority, but not every institution lives up to that claim. We decided to find out if MTSU is doing more than just talk about student success.
We looked high and low across campus to identify concrete examples of the University putting its money where its mouth is regarding retention and graduation. What we found is perhaps best expressed in this alphabetical look at the many ways MTSU really is all about student success!
Even with significant budget cutbacks in higher education across Tennessee, MTSU has reallocated many of its precious dollars to hire 47 new student academic advisors. Housed in individual colleges and schools, these new hires are working with faculty on a more proactive, real-time approach to students who are struggling.
The $65 million, nearly 211,000-square-foot Student Union, opened in 2013 and dedicated entirely to student activities, speaks to the University’s student-centered focus. The recent opening of a $16 million Student Services and Admissions Center and MT One Stop help center (both connected to the Student Union by a walking bridge) is another example of MTSU’s emphasis on keeping students enrolled and working toward a degree. Everything dealing with financial aid, scholarships, records and scheduling, bills, transcripts, and holds (and more!) is now located in one place. Last but not least, the brand-new state-of-the-art $147 million Science Building, which opened in summer 2014, is offering classes and labs for approximately 80 percent of all students!
In recent years, MTSU has launched a mammoth effort to change how it structures and delivers some General Education courses in which too many students were failing. With much effort and painstaking faculty review, these courses have been redesigned in an effort to increase attendance, engagement, and eventual success. As President Sidney A. McPhee is quick to emphasize, this is not grade inflation. It’s taking a good look in the mirror and doing what’s right by our hardworking students.
While great emphasis has been placed on increasing graduation and retention, MTSU has also given careful consideration to ways it can ensure that students graduate with the skills to get a job and a realistic understanding of the job market. MTSU’s University College, in particular, has distinguished itself with programs to help each incoming student identify an appropriate major and chart a path to a career.
Expanded Scholars Academy
Seven years ago, the Scholar’s Academy was developed to attract and
acclimate qualified low-income, Pell-eligible students to the University and equip them for success. Historically, the program enrolled a small group of students (32 or less) and gave them an opportunity to earn six credit hours, learn success strategies, get used to college life, and develop a network of peers. By summer 2014, the number of participants had jumped to a total of 114. These students continue to meet with student-success staff to strengthen their academic and social connections and participate in workshops on topics like note-taking techniques, how to study for exams, and financial literacy.
MTSU’s most ambitious quest for philanthropy in its history—the ongoing $80 million Centennial Campaign—has student success as its focus. Priorities are increasing financial aid and support for students, maintaining the finest teaching and research faculty possible to educate students, improving physical facilities and academic opportunities for students, and enhancing the Blue Raider athletic program to give student-athletes a world-class educational and athletic experience.
Many MTSU students are first-generation college students who juggle academic and work demands in pursuit of a degree. For many, a relatively small financial barrier—say, an emergency room visit or unexpected car repair—can delay their studies and their progress toward a degree. Students who find themselves in a financial pinch can now apply for one-time emergency microgrants aimed at keeping them in school and on track to earning a degree. These smaller sums can help with verified needs such as tuition, fees, books, housing, and transportation. Grants up to $250 are available and do not have to be repaid. To be eligible, students must be in good academic standing.
High-tech, high-touch approach
Remember those aforementioned 47 new advisors the University has hired to ensure that struggling students get the help they need? They do their jobs in part through the use of new, cutting-edge software the University has adopted that allows them to reach out to students who might be having trouble academically as identified through instructor alerts or the software’s predictive analytics function. Other universities have seen great results from similar, more proactive methods of advising. But although technology can boost efficiency, President McPhee is quick to warn that nothing takes the place of genuine relationships that faculty and advisors create with students.
Today’s students simply must communicate across cultures effectively if they are to participate successfully in the international workplace. At MTSU, internationalization of the student body is a priority. International student enrollment has increased from 396 to 789 in five years, and the University placed 335 students in its study-abroad programs last summer. International student undergraduate new enrollment increased 20.7 percent in 2014, and new applications increased by 35 percent. For the first time, more than 400 MTSU students studied abroad during a single academic year. MTSU was recognized last year by the Chronicle of Higher Education as a top producer of Fulbright award winners. The Fulbright Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is the government’s flagship international exchange effort. MTSU was the only Tennessee college or university to earn the Chronicle’s distinction. Finally, MTSU has more than 40 exchange agreements with institutions around the world, including in China, where MTSU’s strong academic partnerships in research and industry rival those of any university in America.
Just graduate in 4 and get more
MTSU recently unveiled a bold new financial aid package to encourage students to graduate in four years. The Graduate in 4 and Get More program promises to supplement by $1,000 the Hope Lottery Scholarships of incoming students who stay on track to graduate in four years and to award a Finish Line Scholarship to graduating seniors that will return any tuition increases over that span. Both initiatives are part of the new Student Success Advantage (see next page), which is part of the overall Quest for Student Success (see next page).
An internationally renowned forensic scientist who is regularly called to crime scenes across Tennessee and consulted by the FBI’s top forensic lab. A contamination expert who used native spiders to gauge nature’s recovery in the aftermath of the TVA-Kingston coal ash spill. A pair of exercise scientists who have successfully used underwater treadmills to treat paralysis victims others had given up on. A nationally recognized economist who regularly appears on business talk shows televised around the world. A music recording instructor who is also a Grammy winner. The only National Teacher of the Year ever to hail from Tennessee. No matter what subject area claims the interest of a prospective college student, there is an expert at MTSU who can deliver real knowledge to help get that student where he or she wants to go professionally.
Long distance learning
Distance learners comprise more than one-third of MTSU’s undergraduate population, and unlike many universities, MTSU does not have a separate faculty serving its online student body. Distance learners have access to the same core faculty that traditional students have in on-campus classroom settings.
MTSU’s midterm grading initiative ensures that students know where they stand academically when they most need to know it and can receive appropriate updates and feedback from their professors. The full participation of faculty members in this initiative shows how committed they are to the overall success of their students. The University’s academic alert system also allows faculty to send electronic messages to students and their academic advisors about their progress at any time. Faculty members believe their job is not only to teach students but also to help them succeed and graduate.
New Student Orientation
CUSTOMS is MTSU’s new student orientation program. It helps new undergraduates feel comfortable at the University, prepares them for MTSU’s educational opportunities, and starts their integration into the intellectual, cultural, and social climate of the institution. CUSTOMS shows new students the ropes. During CUSTOMS, students are shown how MTSU works hard to develop a community devoted to learning, growth, and service. A simple phrase that describes that devotion is “I am True Blue.” Each time members of the MTSU family repeat those words, they give voice to ideals the University wants to share with students, and they reaffirm the institution’s commitment to a student-centered culture. Reciting the True Blue Pledge—which commits new students to honesty and integrity, respect for diversity, community engagement, and reason, not violence—has become a tradition at MTSU Convocations.
Alternative Degree Options
Many students change majors during their college careers (sometimes more than once), or they are faced with candidacy issues and are forced to make changes. Often, credit hours earned in one major can’t be applied to others, and students can lose time and money. In fall 2013, the Bachelor of Science in Integrated Studies (formerly Bachelor of University Studies) was launched with the goal of providing a valuable option to make use of these potentially lost hours.
Studies show that students who are involved in campus life tend to perform better academically
and are more likely to graduate than those who don’t. Connection Point is a program that connects students to the University through extracurricular activities with the goal of improving retention and graduation. In 2013, its first year, more than 2,700 first-time students participated in Connection Point, and more than 2,100 first-time students attended at least one event during fall semester. More than 1,100 first-time students attended four or more events during the semester.
The Quest for Student Success itself!
A presidentially mandated, provost-driven blueprint for student success at MTSU is proof of how seriously the University takes this mission! The plan, unveiled last year, is designed to make sure that every student who attends MTSU with a drive to achieve will be met with the best instruction from excellent professors who care about student success. Instead of focusing on external factors beyond its control, MTSU undertook this quest to focus its energies and talents on tackling internal factors over which it has direct influence and which it knows can positively affect learning. Key initiatives include recruiting students who value academic success, enhancing the academic experience by implementing curriculum innovation across all disciplines, emphasizing the role of quality advising, championing enhancements in administrative processes, and eliminating barriers to student success. The whole plan is geared toward staff and faculty discovering and developing new and innovative ways to help students be successful.
Recapture and R.E.B.O.U.N.D.
Advisors at MTSU now call all previously enrolled students who have not registered for each upcoming semester to encourage them to stay on track and to help them deal with issues like work responsibilities and family issues that might be hindering them. That’s recapture. Another initiative called R.E.B.O.U.N.D. helps students recover from a bad semester. Approximately 600 first-time, first-year students will achieve below a 2.0 grade point average in their first fall semester, and of those, only about 20 percent will return the following year. Advisors use the new R.E.B.O.U.N.D. program (“Retake classes. Engage your purpose. Be intentional about attendance. Own your future. Understand what went wrong. Narrow your activities. Determine that you are going to succeed.”) to intervene.
Student Success Advantage
As mentioned above (Graduate in 4 and Get More), the Student Success Advantage plan provides a $1,000 supplement to the Hope scholarship—making up for a recent state reduction in that program—and also promises to refund any tuition increases that occur during a student’s college career if he/she graduates in four years. The Student Success Advantage also scales back minimum ACT scores required to qualify for five major scholarships guaranteed to eligible students. And the University’s Transfer Academic Scholarships are now guaranteed for students from all Tennessee community colleges.
Tutoring can be crucial to student success. At every step of the academic journey, students discover that tutoring helps understanding, recollection, and application of what is presented in class. Tutoring opportunities can be found all over campus, and an ambitious new tutoring space in Walker Library is available. MTSU students enrolled online can take advantage of tutoring support 24 hours a day!
University College offerings
MTSU is the only college or university in Tennessee designated an Adult Learning Focused Institution by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Officially, half of MTSU students are classified as adults. MTSU operates the most successful summer school program in America. In terms of participation, no other U.S. university comes close. Data strongly suggest that students who attend summer school (including those still in high school or attending another college in fall and spring) graduate at a higher rate. The Middle Tennessee Education Center (MTEC) in Shelbyville is a partnership of MTSU, Motlow State Community College, and Bedford County that offers additional higher education opportunities to those living in south middle Tennessee. That’s higher education in your own backyard. MTSU has been repeatedly named a Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs magazine. No Tennessee university does more to embrace military service members, veterans, and spouses as students and ensure their success.
Vice Provost for Student Success
Dr. Rick Sluder is MTSU’s new vice provost for student success. Sluder was previously vice provost for recruitment and outreach at University of Central Missouri, where he helped increase enrollment and led an initiative to improve student retention and graduation. Dr. Sluder has one mission at MTSU: ensuring academic success!
As an estimated 14,000 fans on Lower Broadway in Nashville enjoyed the music of Capitol Records artists including Luke Bryan back in October 2012, 53 MTSU students were modulating audio, operating high-definition cameras, conducting interviews, and recording the concert for the label. A year later, MTSU students did the same for the second annual Capitol Street Festival.
Other real-world experiences await MTSU students in the research arena. In fall 2014, students in Dr. R. Drew Sieg’s Honors biology courses joined the search for natural sources to isolate new medicines and drugs through the Small World Initiative, a research experience designed in conjunction with Yale University that addresses the increase in antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Collaborators from more than 60 universities are crowdsourcing the search for new antibiotics and making it a unifying theme for introductory biology lab experiments. In Dr. Sieg’s class, students isolate bacteria from local soils, identify them through gene amplification and sequencing, and screen bacteria and their chemical extracts for inhibitory activity against bacterial strains closely related to common pathogens. Students may or may not isolate the next wonder drug, but they will definitely get first-hand experience in the pursuit of scientific discovery.
The Experiential Learning program gives students practical experience in real-world environments related to their fields of study. The idea is to engage students directly in public service and offer them experience beyond textbooks and lectures. More than 200 courses are now approved as EXL courses University-wide. Students have worked with local organizations such as Room in the Inn, Make a Wish Foundation, and Habitat for Humanity. Participation has demonstrated promise as a way to increase engagement with a corresponding increase in retention. The six-year graduation rate for students taking EXL courses is 86 percent—well above average.
The freshman-year experience gets lots of attention, but research indicates that many second-year students feel a sense of abandonment, which can cause them to leave school. Increasing student involvement in campus life and academic programs during the sophomore year is a key issue MTSU is addressing through more academic guidance and extracurricular opportunities.
Zeroing in on undeclared/undecided students
Academic advisors often meet students who begin college without a clear direction. It is also common for them to work with students who begin by charting their own courses but, after facing roadblocks or detours, realize that an alternative route is necessary. Without the right support system in place, indecision can negatively affect commitment to academic and career goals and be a strong hindrance to graduation. Recent mandates by the Tennessee Board of Regents require MTSU to modify how it deals with students who are not ready to select a particular major. These students now get extra advising support.