Published on 2016/06/29
The EvoLLLution | Improving Pathways to Persistence and Success
As more and more focus—both inside and outside the academy—is placed on student outcomes, institutions need to invest more time and resources in retention and completion.

Over the past 20 years, institutions have largely focused on widening access to higher education for groups not widely served by traditional colleges and universities. In recent years, however, the spotlight focus has shifted from access to completion as the demands of the labor market have grown expontentially. This requires a change of focus for higher education institutions, as it’s becoming incumbent on them to ensure students are on track to earn credentials. For many instiuttions, this requires a change in philosophy from a gatekeeping role to one of facilitation. In this interview, Anton Reece reflects on the importance of helping students overcome roadblocks to completion and shares some insights into how he and his colleagues are helping facilitate student success.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why do universities need to pay attention to the roadblocks to persistence and success facing their students?

Anton Reece (AR): Colleges and universities have a commitment to student success and a responsibility to ensure that they are meeting student academic and social needs, and creating clear and measurable paths to completion. Therefore, college administrators need to be mindful of the fact that while success begins with access and enrollment, engaging pedagogy and timely academic support resources are additional critical elements of success.

In addition, chronic roadblocks to persistence and graduation will foster attrition, increase the overall cost to the student, create bottlenecks for course availability and devalue the quality of the undergraduate experience.

Colleges and universities are also facing changing funding formulas for academic success, which are increasingly moving beyond enrollment metrics and now include retention and graduation rates. In addition, reduced state funding is an increasingly glaring reality and colleges and universities are re-examining student success and cost-benefit measures.

Evo: In your experience, what are some of the most significant roadblocks students need to overcome en route to earning a credential?

AR: Three of the most significant roadblocks to overcome include an honest assessment and awareness of their level of college readiness, underestimating the significance of effective study strategies and time management, and seeking and accessing academic assistance in a timely manner.

Some incoming first-year students assume that their high school study habits and academic success equates to similar success in college. However, the increased rigor and depth of college level work, the amount of reading, math and writing expectations, are among the roadblocks students face during the college transition. Because students tend to rely on their prior study routine and habits, they are often less likely to see the need or seek out timely academic assistance. Ultimately they wait until it is too late to reach out and this negates successful intervention.

In my 26 years of experience as a higher education administrator and educator, I can confidently state that student expectations and their habits they bring to college do not always align. On the other hand, I would note that the most successful students recognize that college learning is different from high school, and seek academic assistance early and often. These roadblocks can be overcome and colleges and universities have an array of excellent academic support resources.

Evo: How have you and your team at the University of Tennessee worked to help students overcome these obstacles?

AR: At the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK)—the system’s flagship campus—we concur with the school of thought that all students are at risk until they graduate, and will face some challenges in the college transition. The institution has placed significant resources, time and effort in constructing coordinated efforts during summer orientation, which highlight advising, academic coaching, student life and academic support resources. These resources reflect and reiterate our commitment to students and parents, and making them aware of our academic and social support resources throughout the academic year.

UT has also reviewed and utilized high-impact and research-based best practices, including learning communities, academic coaching, supplemental instruction, tutoring, study abroad, internships and service learning to assist and support student success both inside and outside of the classroom.

In addition, UT has created initiatives geared toward the success of our first generation, lower socioeconomic and diverse populations, including math camp and summer bridge programs. Our institutional data suggest that success in math is key for persistence to graduation. Therefore, we have successfully implemented a three-week rigorous math boot camp for students pursuing math-intensive majors, but have a math ACT score below 25. At the end of Math Camp students take a placement exam, and for the past two years the majority successfully placed beyond college algebra.

Evo: How can technological tools help institutions improve student persistence and completion rates?

AR: Technology is an important tool in our retention efforts. AT UT we utilize Grades First technology and UTRAC. Grades First has a key feature which allows faculty, advisors and coaches equal access into an electronic database, which captures notes and academic plans discussed with students to early alert warnings from faculty about a student’s performance. The UTRAC program identifies and tracks course success and milestones within a student’s major. If students are not successful or attempt to change majors, they receive notification of being off track and need to meet with an advisor. UT students can easily access Grades First and UTRAC through their MyUTK student portal, and each time students log on, they have access to their status, progress and action plans.

Technology is also prevalent in classrooms at UT, including Blackboard, smart boards and interactive online delivery systems such as Zoom. Faculty use Blackboard to post course syllabus, assignments, attendance, course grades and email. The effective incorporation of technology in teaching and learning creates opportunities to consistently engage students, and make them aware of key information they need to know.

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Key Takeaways

  • Though accessibility used to be the core focus of colleges and universities, retention and completion are becoming increasingly important when defining successful institutions.
  • Institutions need to ensure students’ abilities, expectations and skills align with the demands of college-level work.