Recruiting and enrolling students represent only a portion of the challenge university administrators face in the ever-changing, competitive world of higher learning.
Retaining students and seeing them through to graduation comprise the other part of a daunting, daily responsibility. At The University of Southern Mississippi, initiatives are underway to address each of these crucial areas with particular emphasis directed toward student retention.
Dr. Brett Kemker, assistant provost at Southern Miss, has been overseeing a coordinated effort by several campus entities to make sure each student’s experience meets the expectations of everyone involved.
“Right now, we’re assessing everything associated with a student’s time at Southern Miss. We’re trying to knock down any hurdles they might face, except those in the classroom, of course,” said Kemker.
A recent survey by ACT Inc., found that 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.
Kemker pointed out that Southern Miss runs about 10 percent above the national average with regard to student retention. “But we are always striving to be the best in the nation when it pertains to student success,” he said.
As part of that strategic initiative Southern Miss has created a Student Success Center which brings together all facets of student affairs and academic affairs in a university think tank collaboration. Representatives from the Office of First Year Experience, Student Support Services, Division of Undergraduate Studies, Student Government Association (SGA) and Southern Miss Activities Council (SMAC) are teaming with administration officials to establish a blueprint for the Student Success Center.
“I am thrilled that President (Martha) Saunders has moved student success front and center as a preeminent goal for the university,” said Dr. Joe Paul, vice president for student affairs. “With declining numbers of students coming out of high school through the next decade, it becomes critical to our enrollment to retain the students we have and do all in our power to help them graduate.
“The addition of the Student Success Center in Academic Affairs should make a major impact on student retention. We, in Student Affairs, will work hand-in-glove with them to help students succeed.”
SGA President J.R. Robinson, a senior criminal justice major from Bolton, Miss., says early intervention is one of the fundamental keys to cultivating a student’s bond with the university.
“That first semester can make all the difference in the world,” said Robinson. “A lot of students will make up their minds about returning at that point. Part of our job in the SGA is to help make that first semester go as smoothly as possible. And we do that by making ourselves visible on campus and available to assist students any way that we can.”
The ACT report provides no specific answers as to why college retention rates have dropped. However, the declining national economy could be a contributing factor.
“Many of the reasons we lose students are academic and financial in nature,” said Kemker. “And, as a general rule, we could help resolve a lot of those cases. We’re really taking a hard look at how we address these kinds of issues.”
With the 2009-10 fall semester in full swing, thousands of students swarm the Southern Miss campus on a daily basis. While education remains priority one, the entertainment factor is far from overlooked. That’s where the Fun Middle Group comes into play. Faculty, staff and students from the SGA, SMAC, Conference and Fraternity Housing, Office of Student Activities, Eagle Dining, the Payne Center, Residence Hall Association and Recreational Sports comprise the group.
From that brainstorming alliance emerged a late-night programming effort called Eagle After Hours. These programs will be held periodically throughout the current semester from 10 p.m.-1 a.m. at the Power House restaurant on campus and will include live entertainment, food and beverages.
The next event is scheduled for Sept. 11, following the traditional “Friday Night at the Fountain” pep rally. The Southern Miss Golden Eagles host Central Florida the following day in Conference USA football action.
“Students, for the most part, are late-night people,” said Joel Hughes, manager of student activities for SMAC. “One thing our committee looked at from the start was how to reach out to more students. And we wanted something they could do right here on campus.
“Statistics have shown that the more students become involved while in college, the more likely they are to graduate.”
Frantz Salomon, a senior music education major who also serves as SMAC president, echoes those sentiments.
“It’s important to show students that there is life going on outside the Payne Center and the classroom,” he said. “There are activities of all kinds happening here on a daily basis. There’s a lot more to offer the student body than most people realize.”
Kemker says diligent teamwork will pay dividends in the area of student retention. He notes that many different departments at Southern Miss are already tackling the issue in relative obscurity.
“There are units within the campus community, both here and on the Gulf Coast, that are doing absolutely fantastic things in retaining students, but no one else really knows about it,” he said. “My job is to bring all of those entities together so that we’re all on the same page and can expand those best practices to the entire student body.”
Simply put, Kemker says, “If a student wants to come here and earn a degree, then we want to make sure we provide that student with the support needed to help them achieve that goal.”
Southern Miss Student Government Association President J.R. Robinson, left, discusses student retention strategies with Assistant Provost Brett Kemker on the Hattiesburg campus. (Office of University Communications photo by Stephen Rouse).
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.