As the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education, I’ve had the privilege to speak with MSU students, faculty, and advisors about undergraduate student success. I have been heartened by the consensus that all MSU students have the ability to succeed and graduate, and that student success is everyone’s responsibility. These principles are a natural consequence of the land-grant values that are deeply embedded in our institution.
This consensus means there is campus-wide agreement on the goal of continuing to improve student success, and on the urgent need to close the opportunity gaps we see in graduation rates between students overall, and those students from groups traditionally underrepresented at MSU, those who are the first in their families to go to college, and those from lower socioeconomic background
Unfortunately, it is too easy to assume that the responsibility for reforming MSU’s policies, practices, and culture to improve student success rests with others. Faculty can claim that students are at fault, advisors can criticize faculty for ignoring student success, and students can easily assume that both faculty and advisors must change for them to be more successful. Although student success is everyone’s responsibility, it is easy to believe student failure is someone else’s fault! Collectively, the fallacy of this position is clear.
One can understand how this occurs. In many cases, we believe strongly that what we are doing is correct. If we knew what we were doing was incorrect and we could change it easily, we would. No student comes to MSU to fail, and no faculty member or advisor works at MSU to prevent students from learning, persisting, and graduating. Each of us is already doing the things we believe needed for student success to the best of our abilities. Therefore, the changes needed to improve student success and address the opportunity gaps necessarily involve things that are difficult, or things we don't believe or wish to be true.
If we are going to improve student success and address the opportunity gaps, all of us – students and their families, faculty, and advisors - must ask ourselves what we can do to improve student success. We must examine what we do objectively, and give up those things we think are true but just aren’t so. We must also be willing to learn from the experience of others, and we must be willing to implement change that seems counterintuitive if there is strong evidence that it can work.
Several efforts underway already demonstrate that we are capable and willing to engage in these types of changes: increase in early alerts through EASE, curricular re-design efforts in Math and Chemistry, micro grants for summer classes and to get students across the finish line to graduation. These efforts also show the importance of coordination and cooperation across colleges and support units, and involving faculty, advisors, and students.
Another important example our office is now focused on is the importance of students’ taking an appropriate full-time schedule. As required by federal financial aid guidelines, MSU defines full-time status as taking at least 12 credit hours in a semester. Since an undergraduate degree requires 120 credits, however, a student taking only the minimum 12 credits each semester would need 10 semesters to graduate. Any failed, dropped, or repeated courses would add additional semesters, delaying graduation further. Hence, while a 12-credit schedule technically qualifies for full-time status, in many cases it is not appropriate for making timely progress to a degree.
Beyond these mathematical facts, however, there is strong evidence that students’ taking a more demanding schedule, with 14-16 credits in each of their first two semesters and completing 30 in their first year, significantly increases their success. First, having sufficient “credit momentum” - earning credit at a sufficiently rapid rate - is strongly correlated with student persistence and success. One might worry that these statistics are biased - that is, that better-prepared students take more credits per semester. However, the effect remains strong even after correcting for student academic preparation. Furthermore, the improvement in persistence and success when taking a more demanding course schedule is larger for underrepresented minority students than for majority students. Finally, universities that have made a concerted effort to increase the credit momentum of their students have seen marked increases in student persistence and success thereafter.
This seems counterintuitive. One might have guessed that, if a student takes fewer courses and credits, they will spend more time on each, and they will therefore do better. But this is not what the data shows. One hypothesis consistent with the data is that failing to encourage students to take 14-16 credit hours fosters a culture of low expectations, and triggers stereotype threat. While the underlying causes are unclear, the evidence is solid. Students who attempt 14-16 credits per semester and complete 30 or more in the first-year graduate at higher rates than those who don’t.
The application to MSU, where the average number of credits taken by first-year students is falling, is immediate. Advisors and families play a pivotal role here: they can talk with students who don’t have a plan to get them to 30 credits by the end of the first year, make sure students understand the potential costs and delays associated with taking fewer credits, and help the student make an informed decision.
While there are students for whom a reduced schedule is appropriate, it is imperative that taking 14-16 credits, and completing 30 in the first year, becomes the norm. With the active participation and support of advisors and families, we can increase the number of students who establish credit momentum in their first year, and dramatically increase the learning, persistence, and success of all our students.