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Bringing Will and Creativity to Student Success

Retaining students means giving them a sense of belonging at the institution. Higher education needs to connect with students from day one by offering the time, attention, resources and academics they need to succeed.

Student success is at the heart of higher education’s mission. When students depart without a degree, they typically leave with debt, fewer career prospects, less opportunity, diminished self-esteem and an uncertain future. Their departure also can have a negative impact on the institution’s reputation, rankings and budget. And above all, it means we have fallen short of our mission. The vital focus on student retention and success has generated a profusion of strategies, articles, advice and programs, from academic interventions to enhancing a student’s sense of belonging. Our institution, Miami University, has always been focused on student-centered excellence in undergraduate education, but we continue to evolve and adapt our student success efforts in the face of accelerating changes and challenges. Here are some lessons we’ve learned.

Ready, Fire, Aim

Our first student retention committee, created some two decades ago, spent years in meetings, study and discussions but spent more time talking than executing and finally disbanded. Years later, a new cross-discipline Student Success Committee brought together leaders from academic affairs, student life, enrollment management and student success with a charge to innovate and act. This committee consults data and recognizes best practices but also elevates the instincts and ideas of those who work closest with students every day. It encourages novel experiments, evaluates their effectiveness and strategizes next steps—an approach we call “Ready, Fire, Aim.”

For example, a staff member thought that a text reminder might prompt more students to register for classes within their assigned two-day window, so they wouldn’t miss critical course selections. When they sent a text at the halfway mark of their registration slot, nearly one-third of the students who hadn’t registered immediately logged in and completed the process. The staff member was empowered to take initiative, the data showed success, and the reminder became a fixture of the registration process.

While respecting the good ideas in off-the-shelf collections of data, research, ideas and webinars, this think-outside-the-box approach to our work has proven effective at meeting students’ specific needs. Each institution has unique characteristics that impact retention. A culture eager to try new tactics measured by local outcomes is more creative, agile and responsive as the environment changes. This approach enables us to expedite progress. If the approach is successful, we expand; if not, we move on.

Shared Vision, Shared Success

No one office, much less one person, can meet the myriad challenges, concerns and barriers that different student populations face. Student success like inclusive excellence must be a pervasive goal across campus that informs all our thinking, planning and acting. That means those efforts must be coordinated rather than piecemealed across divisions. The Student Success Committee, now led by the Provost, the VP for Enrollment Management and Student Success, and the VP for Student Life, includes representatives from those divisions, each college and finance and business services. Together, they raise questions and set priorities for two other working groups: the University Retention and Persistence Committee and the Coordinated Action Team. Group members work as partners, developing common goals, problem-solving, mapping out solutions together and assigning responsibility for projects. These creative teams share data and resources as well as common purpose and trust, building coordinated strategies that eliminate both gaps and overlap our efforts.

One of the Student Success Committee’s coordinated efforts was an assessment to identify which of our policies were actually impeding student success. The committee directed a full audit of our academic policies, which led to an overhaul of our hold policies. More recently, mental health and an associated increase in medical withdrawals have been a focus. This has generated changes in how we counsel students, and we have implemented outreach methods to stay connected with students who withdraw, so we can invite them back to campus when they are ready.

Small Wins, Big Results

Because our retention rate is around 90%, we need incremental strategies to reach that remaining 10%—analogous to the small ball strategy in baseball that focuses on getting batter after batter on base rather than always aiming for a flashy grand slam. In our institution, retaining 30 students boosts our retention rate by one percentage point. By identifying small groups of students with low retention and reaching out to individuals with calls, emails or visits from staff and faculty, in line with our institution’s student-centered commitment, small wins can yield big results for student success.

For example, we noticed that students with a first-term GPA of 2.0 to 2.4 had a retention rate about 5%lower than our average, and we were losing 15 to 25 of them each year. One staff member had the idea to host a free winter-term class to build success habits with personal reflection. The first year, all 15 students who attended retained to their second fall—a win for them and a half-percent boost for our retention rate.

A Strong Start Matters

Student success depends on more than the capacity to perform academic work. It’s not just a matter of classroom success—a student who earns good grades might leave a place where they don’t feel a sense of belonging. Staff and faculty can foster that connection from Day One in orientation, welcome weekend, first-year seminars, diversity initiatives, residential communities, student clubs, activities fairs, late-night programming and more. On the academic side, we must empower students with tools for success before they need them. We offer multiple pre-semester programs for first-year students to understand the skills they need, set goals and consider strategies to overcome challenges that may arise. These programs also help students identify mentors, connect with peers, identify co-curricular interests and gain familiarity with campus resources before the rest of the first-year class arrives. These programs are especially important for first-generation students, international students and students from underrepresented groups.

For example, the MADE@Miami pre-semester program is co-sponsored by the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion and the Student Success Center and brings a diverse group of first-year students to campus three days before other new students in the fall. Students attend conference-style workshops with topics such as what to expect in their first semester, they reflect on and set goals, attend community-building activities and spend time with upper-class student mentors. These students start their academic career already having connections on campus and feel prepared to navigate the transition to college.

Help From Home

We have all experienced an elevated amount of involvement from the parents of traditionally aged students, and that is unlikely to change soon. At our institution, we decided to embrace their interest and leverage parents as partners, training them to be more effective advisors and coaches for their students. Rather than holding separate sessions for students and parents during orientation, Miami now brings together groups of students and parents with an advisor, so everyone hears the same curriculum information and guidance on selecting courses. Parents are not at registration, but they learn how to help their children find resources and solutions if problems arise.

Higher education’s fundamental mission is to serve students and society. Student success translates to societal success when students are equipped to lead the future in whatever field they choose as knowledgeable, reflective and skilled individuals. Student success also translates into success for the institution. That has never been truer than now, as universities are judged by the graduates they send into the world as the return on society’s investment. Focusing on creativity and experimentation, coordinated partnership, small wins, proactive programming and parents as partners can elevate any institution’s student success efforts to new levels.

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