The University of Southern Mississippi’s work to bolster student retention has been fruitful, with a 91 percent return rate of new students coming back this spring from the fall 2009 semester. Considered one of the best return rates in school history, it followed a streamlining of university resources dedicated to student success.
And as the next academic year approaches, more initiatives designed to help students meet their ultimate goal – graduation – will be implemented.
“Our efforts continue to look at every aspect of student life at Southern Miss, from their first day on campus until they walk across the stage at commencement,” said Dr. Brett Kemker, assistant provost for student success. Kemker, who previously served as associate dean for the College of Health, was named to lead the university’s retention efforts last summer.
Composed of representatives from across campus, the university’s Strategic Enrollment Planning Team began work two years ago on a strategy to help students overcome challenges that could impede their quest to obtain a degree, leading them to become discouraged and withdraw from school. The group examined services and programs ranging from academic to recreational and coordinated them into a focused effort to enhance the overall experience offered to students.
Following extensive study, three student service centers at the university - the Division of Undergraduate Studies; the Office of the First Year Experience; and Student Support Services - were joined to form the new Student Success Center (SSC). The SSC leverages the services and resources of these three units to student academic needs, help with financial aid, student health services, residence life and recreational and extra-curricular opportunities, among others.
“There are a lot of best practices for student success happening on this campus,” Kemker said. “We’ve pulled these resources together to make what is now a university framework focused directly on student retention.”
A recent survey by ACT Inc. shows the percentage of U.S. college freshmen who return to the same school for their second year is declining. A total of 66 percent of first-year college students returned to the same institution for their second year in the 2007-08 academic year, the lowest percentage since 1989. That figure is down from 68 percent in 2006-07. According to Kemker, Southern Miss is now running about 10 percent above the national average with regard to student retention.
On Your Own, But Not Alone
Embracing the philosophy of “On Your Own, But Not Alone,” the university’s new retention effort includes addressing advisement with a strategy of empowering each student to have more confidence and ownership of their role in their degree program, while also expanding support for them during their first year on campus.
A more defined model for working with undeclared majors has been enacted that takes students step-by-step through a process of identifying their academic and career goals and matching those with a degree program at the university that meets their needs, said Dr. Denise von Herrmann, a member of the Strategic Enrollment Planning Council’s Action Team
“Sometimes it’s the little things like good advising, degree and/or career counseling to ensure students are in a program that is a good ‘fit’ for them, or even referrals to services such as tutoring, that make the difference,” von Herrmann said.
She stressed that the university’s retention efforts “are not about making classes easy or pushing faculty to lighten the workload; indeed, we encourage faculty to challenge our students. “Rather, we are working to ensure that students are in classes that they are well-prepared for, taking an appropriate course load, and progressing through their degree programs logically.”
Both Kemker and von Herrmann agree that increased awareness by both faculty and staff of the issue of student departure leads to more proactive efforts in helping them stay in school. “We’re actively touching base with students more often, especially with first-time students, because often they need help but will not ask for it, or may not know where to go for help,” Kemker said.
The SSC launched a campaign to visit with new students, including those living on campus, soon after they’ve enrolled to check on their academic progress and assess their needs as they become acclimated to campus life. “We’re going directly to the residence halls to see them,” Kemker said. “It’s a way to be more involved with them on a one-to-one basis, and it gives them a chance to let us know what they need, whether its tutorial help with math or writing, or any other assistance we can connect them with.”
The SSC offices are located in room 412 of the International Center. But making SSC’s services accessible across campus or online where students are, not just a static office in a building, is another important goal for Kemker.
“Communication is the key to our efforts. We want to be where the students are, so it’s easier for them to resolve any issue they might have, whether it’s placing staff in high traffic areas on campus such as the library, residence halls or establishing our center’s presence on Facebook,” he said.
Future retention efforts include workshops and more opportunities to gain access to the answers students need for help with academics, organization and connectivity. Eagle Landing, an information kiosk staffed by the SSC, will be established in Cook Library’s Learning Commons this summer to provide information about any service offered at the university. The Learning Commons is situated at the first floor entrance where the library’s information desk is located.
“Wherever students are, we want a presence there to help them with any question or concern they may have, whether it’s about academics, financial aid, residence life or any service the university provides to help them earn their degree,” said Kemker. “We want the student to feel genuinely connected to our academic community. We think the Eagle Landings will facilitate such a connection.”
Learning Commons Offers Many Services to Students
The Learning Commons includes the university’s Speaking Center, which offers assistance to faculty, staff and students who need assistance with oral communication projects and assignments; and The Writing Center, which offers tutoring for students who need help with writing assignments or specialized writing tasks. It also has more than 160 computers, with another 32 on the second floor.
Newspapers and academic journals have also been moved to the Learning Commons for added student convenience, and the library has expanded its hours of operation to stay open until 2 a.m.
“I like having everything you need in one area and on one floor, it’s so much more convenient,” said Candace Fryfogle, a sophomore from Lucedale, about the design of the Learning Commons.
In addition, the library’s information desk has been moved closer to the entrance so assistance is more readily apparent to students entering the Learning Commons. There, a member of the library staff is available to answer questions about library resources, as well as an iTech staff member who can provide help with computer programs and functions.
A lounge is another of its features, where students can sit, read and enjoy a display of art pieces produced by Southern Miss faculty, staff and students, along with work from the Southern Miss Museum of Art’s permanent collection.
“Since we’ve been adding more computers and expanding our hours, we’ve seen more students using the (Learning Commons) space,” said Tisha Zelner, head of information services at Cook Library. “It’s a place they want to be, and it’s meeting multiple academic needs.”
For more information about the Student Success Center, call 601.266.4487. For more information about the Learning Commons, contact Brian Soule, iTech Computer Lab coordinator, at 601.266.4508; or Tisha Zelner, head of Information Services, at 601.266.6170.
The Learning Commons, located on the first floor of Cook Library, provides a wide variety of resources for Southern Miss students, including computers, academic journals, newspapers, and assistance with oral presentations and written reports through the Speaking Center and Writing Center. (University Communications photo by David Tisdale)
Patricia Hancock, a Southern Miss graduate student from Gulfport, Miss., uses one of the more than 160 computers available in the university’s new Learning Commons, located on the first floor of the library. The Learning Commons includes computers, academic journals and newspapers among many other resources to help students with various academic needs. It is also home to the Speaking and Writing Centers. (University Communications photo by David Tisdale)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.