What are the obstacles to student success?

Obstacles to graduating on time — or at all — can be numerous and varied for many students, so Indiana State opts for an “intrusive” advising approach to ensure success. And it’s working.

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a series following up on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent article featuring Indiana State.)

Two weeks after Erik Scearce arrived on campus as a freshman at Indiana State, his mom died.

For Scearce, who was the first person in his family to go to a four-year university, the news was devastating.

“She was always my biggest cheerleader, and she was always a sounding board — someone I could go talk to,” said Scearce, who grew up in Fortville, Ind.

Scearce faced other challenges during his time in Terre Haute. He failed a few classes, changed his major and held down a full-time job to pay for tuition after he’d received the allotted eight semesters of his 21st Century Scholars scholarship.

It took six years and a lot of perseverance, but Scearce graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in communication. He now works as a university housing staff member at Illinois State University and is considering graduate programs.

Scearce’s experience offers a window into some of the hurdles Indiana State students encounter during their time in college. For some students, personal issues back home or the need to work full time can distract them from their studies.

Others don’t have enough money to cover books. Sometimes, they struggle to pay for food. About half of State’s students are eligible for the Pell Grant, a federal grant for low-income students.

First-generation Sycamores, who make up roughly half of the student body at Indiana State, are dealing with the complex world of higher education for the first time, without guidance from anyone in their family. Other students simply don’t feel like they fit in on campus.

As Indiana State’s enrollment has grown in recent years, so too have the number of students facing real challenges. Recognizing the unique nature of the Indiana State student body, dozens of offices and departments across campus are helping Sycamores overcome the academic, financial and emotional hurdles that may prevent them from completing their degree.

Josh Powers

“Other universities have decided that their approach to student success is about selectivity, that their excellence is about how many students they reject, not who they admit and how they help them be successful. We’re on the other side. We believe in inclusive excellence and providing support,” said Josh Powers, associate vice president for student success.

Getting to graduation

For Scearce, the person who made all the difference was Christina Cantrell, Indiana State’s first-ever graduation specialist.

Cantrell, who worked as an Indiana State advisor for many years, now reviews students’ transcripts to see what’s keeping them from graduating.

For some Sycamores, all it takes is a personal phone call inviting them to return to campus to retake just one class.

“They would say, ‘Thanks for reaching out to me. I felt like I was stuck.’ Or, ‘I’ve had a bad experience for whatever reason,’” Cantrell said. “When someone reached out to them, they felt like, ‘Wow, they really do care about us.’”

After seeing the in-roads Cantrell made helping students complete their degrees, the university added two more graduation specialists this year.

“With the path I was on, I probably wouldn’t have finished out that school year, and I probably would’ve given up,” Scearce said of Cantrell’s outreach.

Efforts underway

Recognizing that money can be an issue for some Sycamores, the university also recently launched State Works, a program that provides on-campus job opportunities and a $1,000 textbook scholarship to eligible freshmen.

The program, which launched last year, also helps students pay their tuition bill — half of their earnings automatically go toward their unpaid balance. The campus hopes to double the number of students who participate in the program this year, with the eventual goal being 600 participants.

The university is also piloting the Summer Career Exploration Experience, a program offered by the Center for Student Success that helps Sycamores find paid internship opportunities during the summer between their freshman and sophomore year.

This is also the third year State has offered the On-Track Summer Scholarship, which allows students to take up to six credit hours over the summer for free to ensure they have enough credits to continue receiving state aid and stay on track to graduation.

Beyond that, the university is focused on improving students’ psychological well-being and their sense of community on campus with programs such as ISUcceed, a peer-to-peer mentorship program that primarily works with underrepresented minority students, and Sycamores Care, a campus-wide program that reaches out to students in distress.

The campus is also participating in two national studies that are experimenting with the use of simple interventions to increase students’ feelings of belonging and their belief that hard work pays off.

First year in focus

Another new initiative is University College, which launched in 2012 with the goal of helping first-year students successfully transition from high school to college. All first-year students are paired with a University College advisor, who checks in with them multiple times during their first year at State.

The advisors take a holistic and developmental approach to working with students. They’re proactive and, at times, intrusive — they reach out to students frequently, instead of waiting for students to come to them with a problem.

The team at University College follows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — if students don’t have their basic needs met, they’re not going to perform well in class.

Linda Maule

“If you have a student who is hungry or worried about having a roof over their head or whether they’re going to be able to pay their bills or purchase their books … it’s really those issues that prevent a student from not coming back, more often than not,” said Linda Maule, dean of University College.

When students are struggling academically, the college’s 15 advisors dig deeper to understand the root cause of their troubles.

“There are a lot of assumptions made for why students don’t stay,” Maule said. “Often it’s not because they couldn’t do the work. It’s because they have other things that are overwhelming them and they don’t have the support to navigate those things.”

Take, for instance, the federal financial aid verification process. Students who apply for aid are randomly selected to produce documents verifying their identity and their family’s financial situation. That process often reveals some of the other, more profound challenges that Sycamores are facing, Maule said. With those deeper issues uncovered, the university can get to work helping students overcome them.

“If your family tends to rent and move around a lot, or you tend to stay with your grandma or your aunt some of the time or your brother some of the time, or you sleep on a couch when you come home from school, who’s keeping those records and how easy is it for you to access them?” Maule said.

Other students might be struggling because they ran out of meal credits in October or November, well before the end of the semester, and they can’t afford to buy more food.

University College staffers understand that hungry students aren’t as focused on their studies. In addition to directing students to the United Campus Ministries student food pantry, University College keeps peanut butter, jelly and snack bars on hand. They’ve also encouraged people hosting on-campus events to drop off their leftover food in Normal Hall.

“(Many students) have done everything they can just to get here and they’re living by a hope and a prayer,” Maule said. “And that’s a hard way to make it through the university.”

Retention progress

Because they are on the front lines, hearing students’ stories, advisors can inform other campus departments about the real needs of students, which can help shape programming and initiatives. Collectively, the efforts underway across campus to help first-year students succeed seem to be paying off.

The first-year retention rate, which is the percentage of students who return for a second year at State, has increased from 58 percent for the fall 2010 cohort to 67.8 percent for the fall 2016 cohort.

In the long run, improving the first-year retention rate is likely to also help improve Indiana State’s four-year graduation rate, one of the metrics used to determine the university’s state funding allocation. That rate is also improving, thanks to dozens of initiatives underway across campus.

Maule acknowledged that not all students’ struggles are related to their financial or family situation — some are just making bad choices. But considering the population State serves, Maule said she’s proud of the way the university is strengthening its services to support Sycamores.

“We know who our students are, and since we invite them to come here, we should probably meet them where they’re at,” Maule said.

Read the article by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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