By: N.J. Akbar, Melody Tankersley, and Eboni Pringle
Universities across the country are grappling with shifting demographics and the declining college-aged student population. This reality has caused many universities to begin asking different questions about how to support student success. Kent State University has decided to take this potential challenge head-on by becoming a student-ready university—a university that is ready to focus on what we can do to create learning environments that meet students where they are and eliminate barriers that get in the way of their success. This approach is highlighted in the book, Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success, by Tia Brown-McNair, Susan Albertine, Michelle Asha Cooper, Nicole McDonald, and Thomas Major, Jr.
This approach is not particularly new for Kent State, as we began taking small steps in this direction a few years ago. For example, in 2015 we decided that we needed to be more proactive with three distinct student populations that we are proud to serve in sizable numbers. More than one-third of Kent State’s students are the first in their families to attend college, are from limited income backgrounds, and/or are from underrepresented racial backgrounds. These three groups, especially students who have all three population characteristics, are more likely to face many difficulties in maintaining enrollment at the institution than students without these characteristics.
Knowing the barriers that students with these characteristics face, Kent State created the Dynamic Education and Engagement of Diverse Students (DEEDS) strategy, with the goal to increase the retention, persistence, and graduation rates of these students. The strategy is a collaboration between the Divisions of Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, resulting in collective efforts that break down the traditional silos that exist at most institutions. DEEDS focuses on five areas: Academic Success, Cultural Affirmation, Institutional Commitments, Sense of Belonging, and Professional Pathways. The focus on these five areas supports academic success, promotes an affirming community, and prepares Kent State’s underserved students for their future.
A key element of the DEEDS strategy is using data to identify students facing significant barriers and those who were unengaged in a high-impact practice. Like most institutions, Kent State offers numerous opportunities for students to engage in experiences that will aid them in their goal to graduate. These experiences include pre-matriculation programs, living-learning communities, tutoring, and supplemental instruction to name a few. Our review of student outcomes demonstrated that students who face significant barriers persisted at higher rates when they participated in these experiences. Armed with this insight, we provided unengaged students with a professional success specialist. The students were automatically assigned to the professional success specialist and could choose to opt out, though only two chose to do so. The professional success specialist worked with students to develop a success plan, connect them to resources, advocate for resources, and provide just-in-time information and support.
Two additional elements of the DEEDS strategy that have led to our success was the hiring of academic diversity officers for each college and the implementation of a summer program to help students stay on track for graduation. The College of Education, Health and Human Services first committed to establishing an academic diversity officer (ADO). This professional’s work led to a 12 percent increase in retention for underserved students. Three major efforts contributed to this success: providing students a space to meet peers and professionals, a peer mentorship program within the college, and study support groups for passing mandatory exams to qualify for advanced-level courses. The success exhibited in this college led to the expansion of diversity support to all colleges. The ADOs provide direct support for underserved students within their academic disciplines.
Additionally, in 2016, we launched Summer Advantage, a ‘reverse bridge program’ to address students who had not re-enrolled after their first, second, or third year. Summer Advantage provides academic support, peer mentorship, and career and professional development programming to assist students in reducing their time to degree completion. This program helps students who are behind in their graduation requirements get back on track. It also supports students who need financial support to remain continually enrolled at the university. In 2018, this program was awarded the Institutional Excellence for Students in Transition Award by the National Resource Center for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition. Our data show that the students who participated in Summer Advantage persisted and graduated at a higher rate than other students. This success is certainly a contributor to our increased retention and graduation rate overall.
Since the 2015 implementation of DEEDS, the university has increased the four-year graduation rate from 17 percent to 42 percent, decreasing the graduation gap for underserved students compared to all other students from 17 percent to just 9 percent (based on 2020 15th day data). Our goal is to eliminate all gaps and we have seen marked progress since implementing the DEEDS strategy. This strategy is in alignment with becoming a student-ready college and it will continue to assist us with closing the retention and graduation gaps, resulting in all our students reaching success at the same rate.