There are several potential barriers to student success in higher education. One of our responsibilities at St. Cloud State University is to break down those barriers before they become seemingly impenetrable walls.
St. Cloud State has a commitment to student success that has been a core focus since long before I joined the university as provost in 2015. As I begin my new role as interim president, the university remains steadfast in its commitment to student success while recognizing that our focus needs to be on the first year of college.
The first year has emerged as a critical barrier to success. It is the point when colleges and universities, including St. Cloud State, experience the greatest loss of students. This issue cannot be solved with a single method of intervention. Our approach must reflect the needs of a changing student body and leverage partnership and collaboration.
St. Cloud State is one of 44 institutions participating in Re-Imagining the First Year (RFY), an initiative through the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) aimed at improving the quality of learning and student experience in the first year and improving retention rates, especially for low income, first generation and students of color.
The RFY initiative was launched in February at AASCU’s winter meeting. At the meeting, George Mehaffy, AASCU’s vice president for academic leadership and change, shared three ominous predictions and trends that form the basis for this work.
First, the demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution recently predicted, based on demographics, that college graduation rates would start to decline in 2020. If nothing is done he predicts graduation rates would not again reach 2015 levels until 2050.
Second, the Education Trust, a national non-profit advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement for students at all levels, particularly for students of color and low-income students, reports that there are persistent racial gaps that exist in the graduation rate data. The Ed Trust report concludes that if nothing is done, those racial gaps will remain for the rest of this century.
A third concerning trend was reported recently in The Presidency, a publication of the American Council on Education. According to this study, college enrollment rates have been declining since 2008, dropping by 3 percent. Yet among low income students – those in the bottom 20 percent of family incomes – the decline between 2008 and now is 10 percent, which is the greatest sustained decline in college-going for the poor in 40 years.
So what can we do to reverse these trends? Do we accept this situation as destiny or do we begin to make institutional change with a fierce sense of urgency? With more than 40 percent of the students entering college nationwide leaving without degrees — many accruing heavy debt burdens and being less-likely than their degree-holding peers to be employed or qualify for career advancement opportunities — the time to act is now.
As part of the RFY initiative, we will welcome new students this fall to St. Cloud State through Huskies First Four, a new model introduced last fall that reaches students holistically – both academically and socially. The effort is an expansion of our previous two-day new student orientation that focuses on the first four days, weeks and months and on to success throughout our students’ next four years.
The university also is working to increase the number of St. Cloud State students who will be served by professional advisers. By expanding the reach of professional advising, we will better serve students to help them select guided pathways that will help them stay on track to graduate as quickly as possible.
In addition, we are testing a new first-year seminar course for student success and ultimately an entirely new first-year experience for our students.
The stakes are high for our students and our university – and also for the workforce, the region and the entire state of Minnesota. We remain focused and have already begun to make substantial change. By being a part of Re-Imagining the First Year – a groundbreaking collaborative – we believe we will significantly alter the first-year experience of our students and deepen our commitment to student success.
To A Higher Degree is published the fourth Sunday of the month and rotates among the presidents of the four largest Central Minnesota higher education institutions.