Introduction to #TrendingTopics

As a student success scholar and Director of Ohio State’s Center for Higher Education Enterprise (CHEE), I often have the opportunity to speak across the nation to share insights from our #goodwork on important issues related to student success. To extend the reach of those opportunities, I’ve started this monthly column, Trending Topics, to share highlights from my talks and provocative points that come up while “on the road” or the speaking circuit, so to say.

We all know a major challenge facing higher education institutions today is the complex task of increasing student success rates. Whether measured by first-to-second year retention estimates, course grades or 6-year graduation rates, virtually all institutions nowadays devote considerable resources to improving success for all students, especially the performance of our most vulnerable student populations, including those who are first in their family to attend college, hail from low-income backgrounds and/or historically underrepresented ethnic minorities.

Recently, I was invited to visit the University of Toledo (UT) to deliver several speeches to groups on campus, all with the goal of increasing retention rates. Given that 47% of students at UT graduate within 6 years (which is nearly on par with the national 6-year graduation rate) and only 20% of African American UT students graduate within that timeframe, I directed much-needed attention to understanding racial disparities in student success outcomes.

I spoke with student leaders about the supportive roles that peers can play, first-year instructors about building connections in the classroom, student affairs professionals about tying co-curricular involvement to the academic mission and spoke with the broader campus and local community about the power of belonging (and an authentic commitment to “students first”) to increase student success rates in college. Here are a few highlights and quotes:

  • Faculty, especially first-year instructors, should learn students’ names (and use them), draw on students’ experiences wherever possible to personalize learning and signal that students are cared about and valued as partners in their own education—this fosters belonging and is proven to increase success rates.
  • Students who feel a sense of belonging on campus, connected to others and a sense of mattering are nearly 2x as likely to persist in college and more than 75% of them graduate on time, compared to peers who feel alienated and take longer.
  • Providing students with access to accurate, timely information consistently is a key to educational success in college. Faculty, academic advisors and other campus personnel should help students establish plans for achieving their career and personal goals.
  • Changing one’s major after starting required coursework can extend time-to-degree 1 to 1.5 years, and changing a major twice can add 2 or more years—so students are well-advised to think carefully about these consequences before switching majors. Campus personnel should use these facts when working with students.
  • I encouraged students to: “Pursue your passions ruthlessly, but ethically.” And I challenged them to expect and pursue excellence in all that they do. “The greatest tragedy would be for you to leave [college] educated and inauthentically you. Be yourself…the world needs you.”

This series of campus talks was sponsored by the Multicultural Affairs Office at the University of Toledo. Special thanks to David Young, his staff and the UT community for your hospitality and participation!

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