The University of Central Missouri’s commitment to helping students cross the degree finish line is paying off, according to a 2019 Missouri Department of Higher Education (MDHE) report ranking the university as the state leader in degree completion for full-time equivalent (FTE) students. This achievement demonstrates how UCM’s recent revitalization of student support services is helping learners acclimate to and thrive in all aspects of their academic lives.

Many resources and services impact degree completion, especially when it comes to the nearly two-thirds of UCM students who are first-generation, Pell-eligible or from a historically underrepresented group.

UCM is taking a special interest in nurturing the whole student as an individual, especially in the areas of academic assistance, financial planning and career preparation.

“We aspire to be an institution that supports, not equally but equitably, to make sure students have the right resources they need to be successful,” says Chris Beggs, ’07, ’12, executive director for academic support services.

In fall of 2013, UCM launched the Learning to a Greater Degree Contract, or Contract for Completion, as a way for students to develop a partnership in learning and stay on track to complete their education in four years. The university was beginning to understand that many students needed more help than they were getting, and the Contract for Completion marked the beginning of UCM’s commitment to being proactive in how services are administered.

“What the university found is the students who need support the most were the least likely to seek that help,” Beggs explains. “The shift we’re finding in higher education now is from ‘We’re here if you need us’ to ‘We’re here right now because you need us right now. We’re reaching out to you. We’re checking in with you. We know where the pain points will be in the semester, and we’re going to have supports that are there just in time.’”

COE Steps to Teaching flyer

In October 2018, UCM was awarded a $2.7 million Strengthening Institutions Program grant under the U.S. Department of Education Title III program. The university is now embarking on a new five-year rollout plan under the direction of Shaunte Montgomery, Title III project manager and director of first-year programs, to not only maintain the university’s standing as the state’s FTE degree completion leader but also ensure that even more students graduate in the future.

Montgomery is herself a UCM alumna, ’05, and has experience as a senior student services coordinator, faculty member and learning specialist at universities in the Kansas City area. She is responsible for allocating grant money to resources and services that will ensure more students continue to see their academic careers through to degree completion.

“What the Title III program is really after is creating coordination at UCM to best help students,” Montgomery explains. “We know that students stay in college longer when they feel that they are connected to the institution. So, connecting students with professors, with other students, with resources — that really provides that holistic support we are looking for.”

Montgomery is excited about using this opportunity to transform the student experience on campus, even before they start their first semester. Central Summer Academy, a summer bridge program running from June 1 to July 3, is designed to reduce barriers that are common for first-generation, low-income and underrepresented freshmen and can lead to dropping out. At-risk students who participated in the Central Summer Academy pilot program in 2018 experienced an 88% persistence rate, bringing them in line with the average for all first-time, full-time freshmen at the university.

The pilot program last summer was funded by an Opportunity Grant through the UCM Alumni Foundation, and Central Summer Academy officially launches in summer 2019 with continued funding through the Alumni Foundation as well as the Title III grant. The program helps students acclimate to college life, become familiar with the campus and build connections with other students, faculty and advisors before their first semester. Students also have the ability to earn seven prerequisite/general education credit hours, reducing their first-semester workload and decreasing their risk of dropping out in the first year.

“It got me really comfortable with the campus, so by the time school started I knew where I needed to go,” says Darius Lark, a Central Summer Academy pilot participant. “I felt really good about myself the first day of school. I was ready for what was coming.”

Success Advising Center

Another new initiative designed to proactively increase degree completion is the Success Advising Center. The center opened its doors in fall of 2018, following a pilot study focusing on open options students with undeclared majors. The pilot saw a 7% increase in persistence among first-time freshmen and a 13% increase among transfer students from fall to spring of the 2017–2018 academic year. The Success Advising Center may have also contributed to the 7.3% increase in fall 2018 to spring 2019 enrollment over the previous year among students who were conditionally admitted to UCM.

Ken Schueller, director of success advising, points out that many learners, including the approximately half of incoming UCM freshmen who identify as first-generation college students, enter UCM not fully understanding how the academic system works. Schueller says making the process less intimidating is an important step toward helping students access the resources available to them.

“New students don’t know what they don’t know, so you can’t sit back and wait for them to ask questions,” Schueller says. “We know what they should be asking, and when. So we built the success advising model around the idea of designed engagement to provide answers to the questions they should be asking. This, in turn, develops a relationship between the advisor and the student so that when they do have a question, they know who to ask and have confidence in the answers they get."

As of February 2019, the university has a team of certified peer educators trained to take a holistic, intentional approach to helping other students work through a variety of issues and obstacles to academic success. Each peer coach is teamed up with a success advisor.

“It’s really impactful because everyone needs help, no matter who you are,” says Hannah Breedlove (pictured below with other peer educators), a student in the Child and Family Development program who went through the training and works out of both the Success Advising Center and UCM’s Career Services Center. “It’s really great that there are so many resources available to help students out.”

Peer Educators

Staff from the Success Advising Center, Career Services and Student Housing also participated in the training that peer educators completed in February, along with peer mentors from federally funded TRIO programs on campus and tutors from UCM’s Learning Commons. Montgomery’s office is situated in the warm, welcoming space of the Learning Commons, on the third floor of the James C. Kirkpatrick Library, where tutoring, study sessions, test preparation, a writing center and other free academic services are available to everyone from first-year learners to graduate students.

Montgomery recognizes that, in order to give students the best possible experience in higher education, there needs to be a focus on faculty and staff as well. There are plans to support faculty through the Title III grant, involving them in the first-year seminar process, funding professional development opportunities and supporting them in the classroom.

More than 40 faculty, from all four colleges at UCM, have expressed interest in helping redesign the first-year seminar course and redefine its objectives. The grant is also funding embedded tutors — professionals who will be in the classroom supporting students during class — for many general education courses.

Another initiative that will enhance the academic experience is the Active Learning Engagement Classroom (ALEC), making its debut in fall 2019 in each of the four colleges. ALEC spaces provide a modern, flexible learning environment with educational technology that interacts directly with learners’ devices.

“We know that student success depends on intentional academic support in the classroom.”
– Shaunte Montgomery

“The Title III grant provides UCM the resources to coordinate this level of support for our diverse student population,” Montgomery adds, “while strengthening the curricular and cocurricular resources that help students establish successful foundations in college.”

With the support of the Strengthening Institutions Program grant, UCM is committed to optimizing the student experience and achieving its goal of an 80% retention rate — one student at a time. UCM’s efforts are leveling the playing field so every student has an opportunity to graduate. The university’s FTE student degree completion rate is double the state’s benchmark and 10% above the next-highest-rated public four-year university in Missouri, according to MDHE. UCM also saw the state’s highest increase in degree completion rate at 7.6% from fiscal years 2014–2016 to fiscal years 2015–2017. These statistics are a testament to the university’s dedication to each and every student’s opportunity to build a brighter future.

UCM’s wouldn’t be #1 in degree completion without the generosity of alumni and friends. Give the Gift of Success to help students facing financial barriers to graduation.

 

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