Student Success: No Magic Involved, Focus on the Individual Student

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR US ARMY - High school students tour the campus of St. Mary's University during the HACU/US Army College
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR US ARMY - High school students tour the campus of St. Mary's University during the HACU/US Army College Tour, Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, in San Antonio. The goal of the HACU/US Army College Tour is to educate future college students about the enrollment process and Army education and career opportunities. (Darren Abate/AP Images for US Army)

A Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) study introduced in an earlier post identified that the key to student success is the creation and maintenance of a "graduation-oriented culture" featuring "attentive leadership" and a clear "focus on the individual student." Attentive leadership does not necessarily involve champions (though individual champions are common and can be important to success). It exists when there is a consistent, visible expectation throughout the entire institution that the primary job of everyone is to facilitate timely graduation. The second element to a graduation-oriented culture is a "focus on the individual student."

The crucial word in the phrase above is "individual." Institutions must, of necessity, create programs for groups of students, yet to truly have an impact on the goal of timely graduation, each student must see the initiative as targeting his or her own personal need. This concept is, at once, both simple and difficult. Similar to the John Naisbitt "megatrend" labeled "high tech, high touch," (See his book Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives. New York: Warner Books, 1982) "focus on the individual student" suggests that while a university or college needs to reach out efficiently to multiple people at once, each needs to feel special and "touched." The 15 universities in the SREB study all have found ways to do this through a range of targeted programs.

First Year Experience (FYE) programs now are ubiquitous in American higher education, with a majority of institutions having some sort of FYE initiative. Probably all have value, but the most effective ones do not emphasize a general approach aimed at the typical student. Instead, they find ways to connect with virtually every individual.

The SREB study found that all 15 universities had an FYE program, but no two were alike. For example, FYE seminars vary in a number of ways, including: number of sessions; comprehensiveness of the course content; whether student attendance is mandatory or optional; the nature of the instructors (e.g., full-time faculty, administrators, course specialists); whether students also are scheduled together in other classes; and other elements. Furthermore, some institutions' FYEs go well beyond summer reading assignments, special lectures, and workshops on college survival skills such as time management and effective study skills. For example, at Delta State in Mississippi where a significant proportion of new students have never traveled more than 100 miles from home, faculty and staff commonly lead field trips to major cities to visit museums and attend plays and concerts. In addition, many of the institutions include organized social activities for their FYE students. In several cases, the programs have been so successful, that the institutions have added comparable programs for traditional-age transfer students and adults, as well as follow up seminars and workshops for upper class students (e.g., a "second" or "third year experience," though with a different name).

Dr. Vincent Tinto, distinguished professor of higher education at Syracuse University, perhaps is best known for his work on the importance of engagement as critical to retention and played a major role in the internationally administered National Assessment of Student Engagement (NSSE). One thing found common in successful FYE programs is that students engage. They make friends and engage with each other, they engage with one or more instructors and/or staff members, and they engage with one or more institutional activities -- perhaps a sport or a club or even an unscheduled but regular gathering, such as an after-dinner discussion group among friends. As Tinto's work shows, these three types of engagement are excellent predictors of student retention beyond the first year when a high percentage of attrition occurs.

FYEs alone do not ensure retention and timely degree completion. There are many other initiatives that work for some. Another approach is effective student advisement.

There appears to be no single organizational formula for achieving effective advisement. Some institutions that have retention success put the focus on faculty as the primary advisors, while others have gone to professional full-time advisors. However, there is one key to success: insistence that students -- especially those experiencing difficulty -- work regularly with an attentive, concerned advisor. Called "intrusive advisement," this approach recognizes that students often may be self-destructive and fail to seek help, even when aware that they need it. Generally in intrusive advisement, the student and advisor together define goals, the roles of each party, and the substance and schedule for regular communication. While some students may chafe at the loss of freedom (in this case, the freedom to fail on their own), all know that there is at least one person to talk to who cares about their personal success. Combined with an alert process that identifies those students who are struggling early in the term (perhaps as early as a couple of weeks), it is a proven approach to achieving major improvement in retention, and ultimately, timely graduation.

There are many other initiatives found valuable in the SREB study in bringing focus on the individual student, versus on students as a group. Again, the SREB study concluded that there is no single formula; one size does not fit all. And that is our experience at Saint Leo University as well. Each institution must find the mix of initiatives that together, when combined with attentive leadership at all levels, creates a true graduation-oriented culture.