How 3 universities bounced back from failed student success initiatives

Programs don't have to be scrapped altogether, but may have to be tweaked

Sometimes ideas with the best of intentions don't go according to plan. 

During a session at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities' annual meeting this week, representatives from three institutions candidly shared stories of student success initiatives that didn't quite pan out the way they had hoped. Here's how Morgan State University (MSU), University of Memphis (UofM), and Western Michigan University (WMU) learned from their mistakes and got back on their feet:

Western Michigan University

In 2008, when WMU launched its Seita Scholars Program for students who had been in foster care, officials weren't prepared for the influx of students: Staff expected 15 and got 55.

WMU staff say they also hadn't considered how students coming from the foster care system might approach college.

"We thought we were doing a good thing here, but we hadn't taken the time to look at the needs of young people transitioning from foster care to academia," says program director Chris Harris-Wimsatt, noting that students in foster care were accustomed to constant supervision. In an environment with less guidance, students mishandled their scholarship money and struggled academically. In the first year, half of the students in the program dropped their classes.

"Our failure was on the front end, in not providing the support and structure that students would need to be successful," Harris-Wimsatt says. 

Make advising sessions more meaningful for disengaged students

He put the program on temporary hold in 2012 after taking over as director. Since then, WMU has taken steps to better accommodate its Seita Scholars, such as capping the program at 150 students. Seita Scholars now come to campus for a week in July to:

  • Meet with academic advisors and create an academic plan;
  • Meet potential mentors;
  • Learn how to navigate the city bus system; and
  • Experience residence hall living.

University of Memphis

UofM struggled to re-enroll students who dropped out after completing 90 credits before realizing that the university had been "inviting them back to the same situation that forced them to leave," says Richard Irwin, UofM's vice provost for academic innovation and support services. The biggest culprit, staff found, was that students had simply run out of financial aid.

"We had let them run out of aid while we sat by and weren't paying enough attention," Irwin says. 

Remind students to complete financial aid forms—and all their other paperwork—with a helpful 'nudge'

So the team pulled together resources and developed policies that would reduce barriers to completion, such as:

  • Implementing an academic fresh-start policy that erased some old grades;
  • Directing students to a central readmission office instead of seeking out multiple departments; and
  • Offering nontraditional opportunities to earn credit.

So far, 300 students have completed the program and another 200 are on their way toward earning their degrees. 

Morgan State University

Ten years ago, Tiffany Mfume, director of MSU's Office of Student Success and Retention, was tasked with leading an intrusive advising initiative for first-year students. Under the program, faculty could receive additional funding if they advised freshmen over the summer. But because the initiative relied on self-selection, the university couldn't ensure that all departments received equal funding.

While using commercial advising software helped, Mfume says she learned the importance of consulting with other institutions that have tried similar programs before diving in.

At some point, there "needs to be a moment when we acknowledge that higher education is not one size fits all," Mfume says. "What didn't work at our campus might work someplace else, and vice versa. If we started sharing, as a community, the things that don't go well, that could help our peer institutions" (Biemiller, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/15). 

Learn how to make your student success efforts more collaborative


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