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Welcome to the neighborhood

nationally recognized Neighborhoods initiative helps students succeed.

Across the United States, nearly
25 percent of all students go on academic probation in their college career and about 50 percent of those drop out, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The risks are even greater for first-year and low-income students. But a Michigan State University initiative is stemming that risk—right where students live.


“I am a first-generation college student, and I was not prepared for college,” says Leonel Ornelas, a Michigan State University senior majoring in criminal justice with a minor in religious studies.

Ornelas had the opportunity to attend MSU through the College Assistance Migrant Program. Once enrolled, he received support from that program and also benefitted from resources available through MSU’s Neighborhoods initiative, which provides academic, social and health services to students in each of the five residence hall Neighborhoods on campus. Now, he says, “I look forward to shaking President Simon’s hand next spring as she hands me my diploma.”

Ornelas is one of many students who are graduating with support from the Neighborhoods initiative, which recently has received national recognition. The success of the program was key to Michigan State’s selection as one of 11 universities to participate in the newly formed University Innovation Alliance, an unprecedented consortium created to enhance the college success of U.S. students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds.


One third of MSU’s 38,500 undergraduates are first generation, and nearly one quarter of MSU students receive financial support through Pell Grants. While Michigan State boasts one of the nation’s highest freshman-retention rates at 90 percent—an early indicator that a student will succeed in earning a degree—university leadership wanted to do more to ensure success among all students.

MSU set out to better support a student body with diverse academic and physical needs with the launch of its Neighborhoods initiative in 2010. More than a cluster of residence halls, each Neighborhood hosts an Engagement Center, which is the physical and cultural centerpiece of a Neighborhood and supports every aspect of student life, including students' living situations, academic performance and overall health.


“Housing more than 14,500 students, Michigan State’s Neighborhoods harness the power of one the nation’s largest residence hall systems to bring the resources of MSU to first-year students where they live,” says MSU Provost June Youatt. “This new model of integrated academic, residential and student services addresses the goals of giving every student admitted to MSU an equal opportunity of graduating.”

A strong foundation

Each Engagement Center is staffed with a director, academic advisers, a health care provider, an intercultural specialist, and a residence life coordinator.

With hubs in the five residential areas of campus, Neighborhood Engagement Centers provide academic and personal support by offering:

  • tutoring in math, chemistry and economics
  • writing and research help
  • classrooms
  • space for group and individual study
  • focused advising through a network of professional and peer advisers
  • career advisers
  • and opportunities for social development, such as career exploration, intercultural education, health and wellness classes, group fitness classes and leadership development

“East Neighborhood would be the size of Dartmouth, the South Neighborhood is the size of Harvard, Brody Complex would be Cornell, not including the smaller North and River Trail Neighborhoods,” says Vice President for Auxiliary Enterprises Vennie Gore. “We have the Ivy League school-size residential environment several times over on our campus. So how do we make this large place small for students?”

While most of the Engagement Centers’ focus is on immediately improving student outcomes, there are also a number of long-term implications for the work being done in MSU’s Neighborhoods. The pioneering nature of the Engagement Centers means there is the potential for experimentation and exploration to determine what methods of student engagement prove to be most effective.

And through the collection of student engagement data, MSU can improve and customize programs and services.

One example of this will be the Engagement Centers’ impact on graduation rates. Michigan State’s focus is to become even more effective at ensuring that students—once provided the opportunity to attend college—succeed. By tracking how students who use Engagement Center services fare versus those who do not, the efficacy of certain services and programs can be assessed.

The Neighborhoods are working. Partners across campus have come together to collaborate and make a positive impact on students. Leveraging Michigan State’s research prowess, faculty members, administration, health professionals and advisers are collaborating to gauge the program’s success.

“Based on sound research and assessment practice, our Neighborhoods are an integrated, multifunctional support system for all students,” says Kristen Renn, associate dean of Undergraduate Studies, director for Student Success Initiatives and professor of Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education.

Research conducted last year on the impact of the Neighborhoods demonstrated that low-income, first-generation and first-year students who received focused outreach from academic advisers and peer support were 20 percent less likely to be on academic probation after first semester.

Sustained success

MSU’s experiment in creating an ecosystem of student success through the Neighborhoods has already proven its value. Data shows that first-year students who used Neighborhood services more frequently had better GPAs than those who used them less frequently.


“Going into my senior year, my GPA is 3.8, which I can attribute to the help I received in the Engagement Center in my Neighborhood,” says La'Shay Johnson, a senior majoring in kinesiology with a specialization in health promotions and a Spartan Success Coach who works with first-year students as they adjust to college life. “I have used the writing resource center, the math learning center, the learning resource center, and all of the help rooms here at MSU. The fact that those resources are conveniently located inside the Neighborhoods allowed me to have no excuse when I needed help during those cold winter nights.”

The Neighborhoods are also using data collected to partner with academic units to support other campus efforts related to learning analytics and improving instruction in gateway courses.

And with data showing how significant early and continued academic and personal engagement is to student success, the Neighborhoods piloted Student Success Teams last fall. Lead by academic, residential, health and student-support professionals, the teams met weekly to ensure individualized outreach and support to students in need, as indicated through academic or psychosocial measures.

This fall, the multidisciplinary group will expand its pilot program to support 500 incoming students identified as Spartan Success Scholars. The new initiative provides first-generation college students from low-income households with a specialized set of resources that have been shown to be effective in supporting students.

“As a coach, I work with students and Neighborhood staff to assist first-year students’ transition from high school to MSU,” says Johnson. “Because of the characteristics of Spartan Success Scholars we are working to provide targeted resources both academically and socially to help them be as successful as they can be in their new environment.”

And MSU is working to scale its engagement with students to provide support long after they move out of the Neighborhoods.

“My job as a Spartan Success Coach will be to ensure students know about all the resources they have available to them to become successful, independent learners and continue to use them as support throughout their college career,” says Ornelas. “I know it’s not just the tutoring that helped me personally, but the health, wellness, intercultural and residential aspects that got me to this point.”

With this new model of integrated academic, residential and student services, Michigan State University is working to ensure that every student admitted to MSU has an equal opportunity to graduate—and to succeed.


Building on momentum from the Neighborhoods initiative, MSU is joining forces with peer universities to ensure students from diverse backgrounds receive the support they need to succeed and graduate.

The University Innovation Alliance is the first time a group of large public research universities has self-organized across state and conference lines to increase the rate at which students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds graduate from college. The alliance will develop and test new initiatives, share data and scale best practices across its members and beyond, aspiring to invigorate efforts in all colleges and universities to produce a better-educated workforce.

Innovation Alliance

Arizona State University

Georgia State University

Iowa State University

Michigan State University

The Ohio State University

Oregon State University

Purdue University

University of California-Riverside

University of Central Florida

University of Kansas

University of Texas-Austin