Designing Public Universities for Their Students

provost-dan-howardDr. Tim Renick’s pedigree is not what one might expect of someone who has been at the forefront of re-designing public research universities to better serve their students. He is a summa cum laude graduate of Dartmouth with a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Princeton. But, as he noted in his talk before almost 200 faculty and staff members at NMSU on last Friday, that experience helped him appreciate the importance of a strong support system in helping students move through and finish degree programs. When a student at an Ivy League institution falters, family and friends can be counted on to swoop in, help the student deal with his/her difficulties, and set the student back on course for graduation.
 
Recognizing that this kind of support typically does not exist for low income, first generation students who attend public research universities like Georgia State and NMSU in large numbers, Dr. Renick has spent the last eight years re-designing Georgia State University so that the student support system is embedded within the institution. 
 
What does this look like? Perhaps the most prominent feature is centralized advising informed by predictive analytics and punctuated by proactive interventions when a student shows signs of faltering. Other important features include learning communities, meta-majors, and a robust micro-grant program. 
 
The learning communities are organized within meta-majors. All first semester students within a particular meta-major are grouped into cohorts of 25 and take five classes together. This cohort model builds community among the students, ensures that there are familiar faces in all their classes (including large lecture classes), and encourages the formation of study groups. Students do not declare a major until the end of their first year, which allows them to be better informed before declaring a major and cuts down on changing majors, which almost invariably increases time to graduation.
 
The micro-grant program targets students within two semesters of graduation who are having trouble paying their bills.  The average grant is $900 and the maximum grant is $1,500. By helping students who are on course to graduate but running out of resources, Georgia State University provides a final boost to its students and helps itself, financially, in the process. The grant goes back into the coffers of the university, along with the remainder of the student payment, which would have been lost to the university without the micro-grant.
 
Centralized advising has proven to be a boon not only to students, but to the faculty of Georgia State University.  Freed from helping students navigate through the curriculum and financial aid system, faculty members have more time to devote to research, teaching, and mentoring.
 
By embedding a strong student support system within Georgia State University, Dr. Renick and his team have improved six year graduation rates by more than 20 percentage points and eliminated the achievement gap between underrepresented minority students and other students at the institution.  The Chancellor and I look forward to working with the Regents Student Success Committee and the faculty and staff of NMSU in the coming months and taking carefully measured steps, informed by the example set by Georgia State as well as by best practices already in place within departments and colleges at NMSU, to improve our student support system. 

With all best wishes,

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