Michigan State University took the top spot for student engagement among public research universities in the recent inaugural Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Ranking, scoring higher on engagement than many of the nation’s most prestigious schools—private as well as public.
The engagement ranking is a measure of how connected students are with their school, each other and the outside world, as well as how challenging their courses are and whether they fostered critical thinking. And that’s significant because higher student engagement translates into stronger, more active learning and, ultimately, higher graduation rates and career success.
Engaging undergraduate students as part of the landscape of a large, research-intensive institution is no small challenge. But, consistent with its land-grant beginnings and ways of working, MSU has made long-term strategic efforts to weave students into the fabric of the university, delivering more opportunities and better value to both students and society.
“Central to our ability to provide opportunities are the programs we’ve put in place to support student success—programs that provide help before students even set foot on campus, that persist throughout their time here as students and that extend beyond graduation,” says June Youatt, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at MSU.
Staying on Course
MSU has always been committed to enrolling a diverse student population that reflects the society it serves. About one-third of MSU’s 39,090 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 92 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’s diverse student population enters the university at varying levels of preparedness, both academically and financially. To ensure all students have access to the resources they need to succeed throughout their college experience, MSU created the Student Success Transformation Initiative, a collection of programs that aim to improve the degree attainment rate for all students, including lower-income and first-generation students.
Summer bridge programs help acclimate students to the pace and demands of college life, and a mix of scholarships, tutors and advisers and financial literacy seminars ensure they stay on track. Resources, including the Office of Supportive Services, provide comprehensive services to students from underrepresented backgrounds as well as those with disabilities.
If students show signs of struggling academically, faculty can sound an alert through the new Enhancing Academic Success Early (EASE) warning system, which reports on grades, attendance and engagement in the classroom. Integrated into MSU’s new Student Success Dashboard, the system allows advisers and support staff to pull student data and information based on a set of success markers. Harnessing a decade of student data is helping to better predict warning signs and the steps that should be taken to get students back on track.
Building Strong Neighborhoods
Launched in 2010, MSU’s Neighborhoods initiative provides academic, social and health services to students in each of five residence hall zones on campus. Under one roof, students can easily access academic resources—including coaches, tutors and learning resource centers—student engagement centers, classrooms, health clinics and more.
Earlier research 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.
The success of the program was key to Michigan State’s selection as one of 11 universities to participate in the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium created to enhance the college success of U.S. students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds.
Michigan State and its partners in the alliance received $3.85 million in new funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and USA Funds to further support student success programs. The funding will support ongoing collaborative efforts between the universities to graduate more students across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Engaging Learners Everywhere
At MSU, many formative experiences happen outside the classroom, including study abroad, service-learning and undergraduate research. These opportunities are open to all students, and funding and scholarships enable a wider pool of students to participate.
A new initiative to transform what happens inside the classroom is taking shape with the Hub for Innovation and Learning, which is tasked with “helping MSU reinvent itself as a learning institution.”
“We are focused on better understanding and facilitating student learning,” says Jeff Grabill, associate provost for teaching, learning and technology and director of the Hub. “That is how we will be a catalyst of learning innovation for the entire university.”
The Hub focuses on student success by creating and accelerating new ways to collaborate, learn, research and deliver instruction.
“I would like to see that cultural shift be one in which we have created much more inclusive learning environments on this campus so the increasingly diverse students who come to us recognize that this is a home for them and that this is a place that will care for them, and that they can join this community of scholars,”Grabill says in an interview with Spartan Podcast.
The university is also part of the national conversation about the need for more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates through its participation in the Association of American Universities Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative.
MSU faculty members from multiple science disciplines are practicing what they recommend for institutions across the country: working together with colleagues in their respective disciplines to decide what students should master in each “gateway” course and bringing active learning to large lecture courses that don’t typically inspire student participation.
Promoting Upward Social Mobility
Providing opportunities and helping students climb the socioeconomic ladder after graduation is another area where MSU leads the way.
Michigan State is first in the state for promoting social mobility, according to a 2016 social mobility index created by Bridge Magazine. In fact, Bridge reports MSU students from low-income households “fare as well as their wealthier classmates a decade after college.”
MSU ranked among the top five Michigan colleges and universities in cost, graduation rate and salaries for low-income students, as well as salary equity a decade after enrollment. And with a graduation rate of nearly 80 percent—well above the predicted range given MSU’s student body composition—MSU is helping students graduate on time and with lower student debt.
“We’ve always made a deliberate effort to reach out to a broader range of students and to provide them with opportunities to succeed academically and, in turn, professionally,” says Youatt.