Colleges Encouraged to Improve the Student Experience By Using Identified Best Practices

WASHINGTON

Jackson State University discovered through a student survey that students were not feeling engaged at the institution, and despite problematic academic probation and retention rates, were not taking advantage of the support services available. To address these issues, the university realigned departments central to student success, reduced bureaucracy students encountered and trained faculty and staff about services so they can in turn inform students who come to them.

The result? A 46 percent increase in students using tutorial services and a 79 percent increase in students using advising and counseling services at the historically Black university in Mississippi. 

This is one of several improvements, based on data, taking place at minority-serving institutions across the country outlined in a new monograph and eight-part best practices series from the Institute of Higher Education Policy. The National Survey of Student Engagement and the Alliance for Equity in Higher Education set out five years ago to help minority-serving institutions (MSIs) improve their data-collection capacity and facilitate data-based campus initiatives through The Building Engagement and Attainment for Minority Students (BEAMS).

The 102 HBCUs, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and tribal colleges involved in BEAMS used data from the National Survey of Student Engagement and campus assessments to implement a plan for improving student engagement, learning, persistence and success developed by campus constituencies. They developed short-term assessments to benchmark their progress.

The result is “Increasing Student Success at Minority-Serving Institutions: Findings From the BEAMS Project,” a monograph released Thursday in Washington, D.C., as part of a five-city campaign to present and promote these best practices.

While one recommendation calls on MSIs to make a greater investment in staff and technology needed for institutional research, Jillian Kinzie, associate director of NSSE, says there’s plenty of assessments taking place.

“What is unique to HBCUs and HSIs, there’s a lot of concern and skepticism around using national standard instruments, concerns about how the data will be used,” she said. “There are still some concerns about data at MSIs because data has been used to punish institutions.”

On the other hand, some private, elite institutions shun assessments, preferring to rest on their reputations, she said. But as Congress, the public and accrediting agencies want to see more evidence of effectiveness, finding out where institutions need to improve is important.

The assessment and changes need to be put in the context of the university, BEAMS officials say, because what works at an urban institution may not work at a rural one.

The commitment to make improvements informed by data has produced some good results for BEAMS participants. For instance, Florida International University, a large HSI in the Miami area, sought to raise student satisfaction in the area of institutional support. With so many commuter students spending more time off campus than on, it developed a Virtual Student Center, a 24-hour portal for accessing online tutoring, obtaining information about specific majors and departments and communicating with faculty. That model has been replicated at other institutions, including New Jersey City University.

Since it founded the Myrtilla Miner Professional Development Academy through BEAMS to promote the best strategies for student learning, the University of the District of Columbia has seen its retention rate of entering students go from 30 percent in 2004 to 57 percent now.

Among specific recommendations for student services, for instance, universities should create a seamless integration among student services offices so that students aren’t getting the “runaround.” In Jackson State’s case, the university created the division of Undergraduate Services, which includes the first-year program and Honors College. Universities should also secure buy-in from front line staff to ensure good customer service for students. At JSU, the president implemented strict customer service policies and procedures.

Initially launched by the American Association for Higher Education, the management of BEAMS was transferred to IHEP.

Among the overall recommendations, which officials say can be applied to non-MSIs to improve student retention and degree attainment:

  • Investments are needed to build the capacity of MSIs to collect, analyze and use data for institutional decision-making and accountability efforts.
  • Institutions should align data collection methods with institutional capacity and develop a framework to interpret data results.
  • Institutions should consider how their data-based improvement project fits in with the wider campus objectives.

A panel of experts will make presentations at California State University-Dominguez Hills (March 25), Spelman College (March 28), University of Puerto Rico-Humacao (April 1), and University of the Incarnate Word (April 4).

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