Middle Tennessee State University: Pressing forward on the quest for student success

How MTSU improved its student retention rate

Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), a public research university of 22,000 students, is located in Murfreesboro, southeast of Nashville and almost exactly in the geographic center of Tennessee. Its student body is 50% Pell Grant eligible, 50% first generation, and 40% minority. It has recently received wide recognition for improvements in the rates at which its students persist from one year to the next. The improvement has been gradual, steady, and impressive: In fall 2012, MTSU’s rate of year-to-year retention was 65.2%; by fall 2016, it had risen to 76.4%. This represents the highest level of retention in the modern history of the institution.

How has this transformation come about?
MTSU made a strong commitment to student success—and followed through on it with a set of concrete steps to transform the ways in which it helps students achieve success. A little more than four years ago, MTSU advised its students in a traditional way. Advisors held meetings with students to ensure that they carried out the basic business transactions necessary to register themselves for the following semester’s classes. At these meetings, advisors had scant information at hand on their students’ backgrounds and experiences and they faced large caseloads of students, all of whom needed to see them in a short period of time. As a result, advisor-advisee meetings typically did not include discussions about how the proposed classes did or did not align with the student’s recent academic effort, progress toward completing a degree or a major, or career plans.

The model is quite different today. MTSU, recipient of a 2015 grant for Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS), has been pressing forward in the pioneering use of data collection and sharing to maximize the potential of these advising relationships. In doing so, the institution has achieved significant increases in the rates at which students persist and, ultimately, complete degrees.

In 2014, MTSU joined the Education Advisory Board’s Student Success Collaborative (SSC). This enterprise-level technology enables the analysis of data relating both to the student and to the course over time, examining patterns of courses and mixes of courses as far back as the institution has data. Among the results of the analysis are predictive scores that allow administrators to look at the student body overall and identify the specific students most in need of help from their advisors. MTSU uses these data not only to identify and support the lowest spectrum of students but also to find and provide forward-looking assistance and advice to the larger cohort of students just above that spectrum. This larger grouping, an often-neglected group sometimes labeled the “murky middle,” is made up of students who have not yet left the institution but whom the data indicates are at risk of doing so in the immediate future. MTSU advisors and other student success specialists use the output of the technology to identify, reach, and monitor their assigned students before the first obvious markers of trouble, such as failing or not completing a class in the major or missing a success marker.

Using data to inform advising
Having such a powerful system in place to filter and analyze data is only a small piece of the puzzle, however. In order to utilize it successfully, the advising function itself must evolve to be data-informed. Getting the right people in place in advising roles and providing them with appropriate training are both equally important. As MTSU implemented the technology, the institution also committed to a substantial increase in the number of advisors it employed. Forty-seven new advisors were hired, allowing a reduction in the number of advisees that each was assigned. The increased numbers of advisors allowed for the creation of multiple distinct advising centers to address categories of student needs, from transactional to coaching/student support, and for the gradual evolution of advisor special expertise.

MTSU has also used its analysis of the wealth of data now available to develop and refine programs for student support. Here are just two examples of these:

1. The bridge program Scholars’ Academy.
An intensive two-week summer program on campus, the Scholars’ Academy Freshman Summer Institute is open to all first-year full-time students and particularly targets those who are first generation, members of minority groups, and/or Pell-eligible. The Institute is designed to prepare participants for college-level general education courses, to engage them in serious conversations about college, and to offer them connections to student support resources and valuable advice that will continue into their first year of study. Joining the Academy makes a significant difference for its students: Participants in the program have a one-year retention rate of 84.9 percent, which as of 2016 exceeded the 73.8 percent one-year rate rate for all other freshmen.

2. Peer-assisted supplemental instruction.
MTSU has used the extensive data available on course results to build meaningful learner support outreach through an expanding program of peer-assisted supplemental instruction. Data from the system allows staff easily to determine those courses in which rates of low or failing grades are especially high. They can then make peer-led study and discussion sessions available to students in the courses. The peer-led sessions incorporate content specific to a particular course section. From 30% to 60% of the students in a course with supplemental instruction available take advantage of it, and assessment shows average improvement of half to a full letter grade among students that participate. The supplemental instruction program served 21 course sections in fall 2016, expanded to nearly 70 sections in Fall 2017, and is expected to continue its expansion as learner support at MTSU evolves in the future.

A critical factor in taking advantage of the data available via EAB SSC is communicating it effectively to everyone who can benefit from knowing how the institution is doing in meeting its goals. Changing a campus to be data-informed is no small feat. Since his arrival at MTSU in 2014, Dr. Richard Sluder, vice provost for student success and dean of University College, has worked to create and engage an efficient network for identifying and supporting students at risk.

One key to this effort is communicating up-to-the-minute results to everyone involved. He sends targeted and regularly scheduled communications via e-mail to individuals on campus in multiple departments and at a variety of levels. The communications are designed to provide specific answers to the key question: “Are we making progress?” They include precise comparisons, setting current data against the same information for the past year and against targeted goals. These messages do more than relay information: They embody Dr. Sluder’s strategy of informing all stakeholders in ways that will resonate with them, celebrating progress, and continually imparting a sense of urgency in regard to the tasks at hand. Communicating across campus in this way has helped unite everyone on the mission and the work.

Evidence of this united front comes from many quarters. For instance, MTSU president Dr. Sidney McPhee may greet one of his staff members at a function with a pointed question: “What’s happening with the transfer student population? Seems like our numbers are trending down.” Advisors recognize that every day counts. At any point in the term, they are able to report their numbers: how many students they are working with and what their persistence and retention numbers look like. Deans come prepared to the President’s Student Success Team meetings positioned to report on what they are doing to continue to move the needle in the right direction. The power of the data, shared and interpreted through these communications, enables the institution to evolve and move forward.

MTSU’s effective use of its technology to collect and analyze data, its programs created based on those analyses, and its strategy of targeted communication are all important contributors to its success in improving student persistence and completion. Another critical factor is leadership and commitment from the highest levels of the institution. MTSU president Sidney McPhee has been an ardent advocate for placing student success at the center of the institution’s mission and the top of its priority list. As a demonstration of his advocacy, he personally hosts and chairs the weekly meetings of the President’s Student Success Team. This 19-member standing committee, whose representatives include vice presidents, the vice provost for student success, the faculty senate president, deans’ representatives, faculty members, and other key administrators and staff, discusses and reviews student success initiatives. Through their participation on the team, chairs and deans are regularly included in the conversation about progress toward key retention and completion goals and are themselves empowered to issue calls to action. President McPhee also raises awareness beyond the campus by highlighting student success in his public addresses and communications.

Among MTSU’s key goals, according to its leadership, is enabling a significantly higher portion of its students to complete what they have undertaken by graduating and receiving degrees. In their work toward this goal, they have utilized a combination of strategies:

  • implementing and leveraging new technologies that help staff work smarter, not harder;
  • leveraging “big data” to track progress and refine plans in accordance with the results coming in;
  • remembering that the people involved, not data or technology, will be what makes everything come together, and, accordingly,
  • keeping everyone involved, connected, informed, and committed to the ongoing processes of transformation.

MTSU’s notable progress did not occur overnight. It is the result of a combination of investment, development of an appropriate institutional strategy, engagement of staff across levels and departments, and leadership and commitment from the highest levels of the institution.

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