Higher education has faced unprecedented challenges over the past year. Perhaps more than ever before, concerns about how students will navigate the obstacles of their academic pursuits is at the forefront of many conversations. There are multiple institutions across the country that began their student success efforts long before the pandemic began. One such institution is Middle Tennessee State University, which has been on a Quest for Student Success since 2014.
I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Richard Sluder, Vice Provost for Student Success at Middle Tennessee State University, to learn more about their strategies for supporting students, both through their Quest and throughout the pandemic. As a result of MTSU’s collaborative efforts, first-year retention reached its highest rate ever in 2020. Additionally, MTSU has seen outstanding improvements in graduation rates, with their 6-year graduation rate increasing 42 percent to 51 percent in five years.
While the disruption of COVID-19 proved challenging for institutions across the country, Dr. Sluder shared some of the approaches implemented at MTSU that led to their continued success in 2020. Here are five takeaways from my conversation on student success with Dr. Sluder.
1. Build collaborative, flexible infrastructure
Undoubtedly, developing strategies to support student success, regardless of circumstance, helped MTSU respond to COVID-19.
The institutions that had the infrastructure in place, or had already been engaged in student success, were much better positioned to address the dramatic changes as a result of COVID and what’s happened across the landscape of higher ed.
- Dr. Richard Sluder, Vice Provost for Student Success, MTSU
Unforeseen challenges are inherently unpredictable. Proactively developing approaches that help your staff support students in a variety of ways will give your team the flexibility to respond as needed. It’s also important to ensure faculty are part of the student success conversation, as strengthening faculty infrastructure helps support a positive student experience. MTSU’s Quest for Student Success included hiring 47 additional advisors and developing a collaborative framework to meet the needs of students.
2. Leverage data for immediate intervention
Developing strategies to leverage available data is crucial to student success efforts. MTSU leverages retention, enrollment and graduation data to support their students. According to Dr. Sluder, "We measure these things relentlessly, and use it to guide and inform our decisions.” For example, MTSU flags students who have attended orientation, but not yet registered for classes, and launches targeted outreach to these students.
Throughout a university ecosystem, some data points might allow for immediate intervention, whereas other data is more reflective in nature. Finding opportunities to review historical data and tap into new data sources is critical. Ultimately, this historical data can be leveraged to shift programs or launch new and innovative initiatives for student success.
3. Lead by example with a clear vision
One of the components that set MTSU up for success is strong leadership and a clear vision that emphasizes student success. Dr. Sluder cites, “strong senior leadership from the president down to deans, chairs and managers” as a factor that helped MTSU respond successfully to COVID-19. Leadership provided clear vision and direction for units to be able to move forward on efforts to assist students.
Other strategies were implemented to help support staff, such as 1:1 meetings with all student success staff and weekly online team meetings to increase communication and collaboration. This leadership was not only an asset internally but externally as well. Clear vision helps students and parents understand what’s happening and put additional trust in the hands of the university.
4. Support remote learning for students, staff
National trends around online learning, even before COVID-19, are of no surprise. MTSU has implemented several strategies to ensure education can be facilitated remotely, including hiring a Chief Online Learning Officer and additional instructional designers.
In the wake of COVID-19, efforts were made to guarantee all classrooms were lecture compatible and additional resources, such as laptops, were provided to faculty. Beyond the classroom, efforts were made to connect with students through support resources, and MTSU reported higher participation rates through online advising than previous years. All of these efforts emphasize just how important it is to be able to provide resources to students efficiently and on-demand.
5. Communicate directly to students
MTSU has leveraged a comprehensive communications calendar for several years. This calendar allows staff to communicate resources instantly and efficiently with their students, especially in light of the key milestones MTSU tracks around enrollment. This method of outreach varies and includes emails, direct mail and phone calls.
- Postcards: MTSU wanted students to know they were missed. The goal of this campaign was to generate an action, such as registration.
- Personalized phone calls: Faculty and department chairs called students directly to emphasize connection and community.
- Message from the President: MTSU’s president sent over 50 messages to the campus community to ensure students and parents were kept in the loop. These messages were also posted to social media and the website.
- Proactive email: An assistant provost asked students what they needed to successfully return. The replies were overwhelming and illuminating.
This year, MTSU plans to survey students on their plans to return and resources they might need for success.
What's next for MTSU?
Future challenges, like a global pandemic, will inevitably arise. Higher education must be poised to support student success regardless of circumstance. In addition to increased calls for accountability from state and federal mandates or simply as a result of ongoing conversations about the value of higher education, institutions must take action today. Not to mention the moral imperatives at play, the transformative nature of higher education on the lives and livelihoods of families across the country is clear. MTSU is paving the way along their Quest for Student Success.
Alumni outcomes data is one way to prove and improve the value of a degree from your institution. The example below shows the top five most relevant skills reported by MTSU accounting majors. Financial Reporting is both a popular and relevant skill for these grads. Certified Public Accountant, however, demonstrates opportunity in that it is relevant and correlated with a high salary but not very common. Take a tour of graduate outcomes data here.