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

How MTSU improved its student retention rate

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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