Friday, April 18, 2014

[520] First student success town hall draws large crowd to Student Union

It was standing room only Tuesday afternoon inside the Student Union Parliamentary Room as MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee conducted the first of three campus town hall meetings this week to share more information about the university’s Quest for Student Success initiative.

The goal of the initiative is simple: Institute needed reforms across the university to help students achieve more academic success, ultimately leading to more students earning their degrees and launching successful careers.

What will a successful initiative look like? McPhee said the goal is for MTSU to “move the needle,” raise its graduation rate from roughly 52 percent currently to 62 percent by 2020. The president emphasized that a year and a half was spent crafting the student success initiative, with input from faculty, staff and students throughout the process.

“This is not President McPhee’s initiative. This is everybody’s business,” he told the audience during the 90-minute presentation, which included copies of the initiative given to those who wanted one and a Q&A segment. “This is our initiative. We’re all in this boat together.”

The next two town hall meetings also will be held in the Parliamentary Room, from 9 to 10 a.m. Wednesday, April 16, and from 2 to 3 p.m. Thursday, April 17. McPhee also announced Tuesday that a fourth town hall will be scheduled for a later date to accommodate those unable to attend any of this week’s sessions because of religious observances.

Launched in the fall, the Quest for Student Success reforms are aimed at helping MTSU students stay on track academically all the way through graduation. The effort is in line with Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” goal to extend the reach of higher education and includes a top-to-bottom review of university operations.

Among the changes being prompted by the initiative:

  • Stepping up recruitment of students who have greater potential to succeed at a four-year comprehensive university;
  • Enhancing the academic experience of enrolled students to better ensure their success, including greater tutoring, enhanced advising and an emphasis on more “high-tech and high-touch” approaches;
  • And using more innovative, data-informed best practices to facilitate success.

McPhee pointed to the pressure being placed upon higher education institutions across the country — at local, state and federal levels — to improve student outcomes while also addressing the rising level of student loan debt. While acknowledging that major reforms will take time, McPhee stressed that MTSU must have “a sense of urgency” about making changes.

A key area of focus during Tuesday’s town hall was the renewed emphasis on advising, and the need to hire additional advising staff to reduce the student-to-adviser ratio. While the nationally recommended ratio is 300-to-1, some MTSU professional advisers are responsible for up to 1,000 students.

McPhee asked Provost Brad Bartel to elaborate on the plan to boost advising, with Bartel telling the audience that the process has begun to eventually hire more than 40 additional professional advisers to be spread across the university’s colleges based on need. The goal is to have the advisers in place by mid-fall, said Bartel, who added that MTSU’s large percentage of first-generation college students (70 to 80 percent) makes strong advising critical in keeping those students on track to complete their degrees efficiently.

When McPhee opened the floor for questions following his presentation, Chuck Higgins, an associate professor in the astronomy and physics department, suggested that the various committees that have been formed to address facets of the student success initiative share information with each other.

“Please, please let us share the recommendations that each of these committees have,” Higgins said. “Can we share our best practices?”

McPhee thanked him for the suggestion and asked Dean Mike Boyle, interim vice provost for student success, to set up an online location to house the recommendations.

Economics and finance professor Bichaka Fayissa brought up the large number of MTSU students who work full time jobs while pursuing their degrees. Fayissa said the university must stress to students in the advising process of the need to prioritize their educational goals and balance that with work obligations.

“It takes two,” Fayissa said of the shared responsibility between faculty and student. “It’s a question of priority. Students have to participate fully in order to be successful.”

McPhee wrapped up the session with 10 key points to guide the campus in following through with the Quest for Student Success. The 10th point was simply, “in order to have something else, we must do something else.” The status quo is no longer optional, he said.

“We’re not lowering the bar,” he said. “We’re actually raising it for our students.”

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