What is the definition of success for students in the University of North Carolina system?

Is it receiving a diploma? Is it being trained to enter the workforce? Is it being able to graduate from one of the system’s campuses within a specific time frame? Is it graduating without excessive student debt?

The answer is yes, to all of the above and more. Perhaps the focus needs to be on the question.

That was one of the stated goals at the Student Success Symposium, held in early April at the McKimmon Conference & Training Center at North Carolina State University. Not only did the conference include faculty and staff representatives from every University campus, but also included students, members of the Board of Governors, two state legislators and representatives from private industry.

Many of the participants of the symposium’s panels noted that coming up with a definition for student success isn’t easy, but that a common idea includes taking a personalized interest in students’ academic pathways and best preparing them for life after graduation.

“Today’s symposium brings together people on the front lines of that effort,” UNC President Margaret Spellings told the audience in a video introduction. “Today is a day to explore the role that each of us plays in the lives of aspiring students. It’s a chance to better understand the public policies that govern our work, and the culture of the campuses where academic policy and programming meet student needs. This is also an opportunity to consider the connection between student success and economic outcomes. Preparing our graduates to find fulfilling work does not diminish the importance of critical thinking, civic engagement, social development, and all of the contributions we expect of higher education. On the contrary, those values and skills are exactly what positions our graduates to pursue opportunities and adapt to a rapidly changing modern world.”

Student-centered solutions support college completion and post-college success

While graduation rates are the most common measures of success, various experts speaking at the symposium emphasized that policies should consider factors behind those graduation rates. A common thread throughout the day was the emphasis on personal attention and the application of an array of solutions to meet the diversity of students’ needs. Effectively engaging students and providing them with opportunities to succeed during and after their university education –  these sometimes require a suite of student-centered programs both within and outside of the classroom.

David Laude, senior vice provost at the University of Texas-Austin, said his state directed about $4 million in funding to helping the bottom quartile of each freshman class attain higher graduation rates. Four years later, those at-risk students are graduating at double the rate of the rest of the university, thanks to programs that involve more personal attention to help the student get on track academically.

Those students, he said, aren’t put into remediation programs but instead “are given lots of attention” by faculty mentors. About 1,500 to 2,000 students per year join these “success programs,” Laude said.

During one session, five universities presented a sampling of some of their student success programs:

  • At UNC Asheville, the university partners with AVID for Higher Education (AHE), a national organization committed to improving college completion rates for first-generation and low-income students. Because UNC Asheville is a liberal arts university, its students major in general studies rather than specific disciplines, and advisors and mentors on campus help steer students to what they want to accomplish post-graduation.
  • At UNC Wilmington, the PULSE program assists science students who are interested in fields such as medicine, physical therapy and pharmacology get practical, hands-on experience by coordinating with local practitioners to help mentor the students. The program also arranges tours of facilities and brings an awareness of health issues so that students can prepare themselves once they graduate.
  • At Fayetteville State University, the campus has just launched Merit Pages, a social media platform that the university uses to help students build professional online profiles that list their accomplishments and achievements. The Merit Pages are designed to be something to help positively boost an FSU graduate’s profile when a hiring company performs an online search of the student.
  • At UNC Greensboro, Export Odyssey is a program that ties students into the North Carolina business community. Students will research international markets for North Carolina products and try to launch those products in at least one foreign country. Not only does the program give the students practical business skills, but it also helps the state economy with a boost of exports.
  • At UNC Charlotte, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project in the College of Arts and Architecture surveys working alumni professionals in the arts and design fields, using data-driven results to help current students decide what majors to pursue to get their ideal job after graduation.

Perspectives on affordability, completion, and cost-effectiveness

A particular highlight was the keynote speech given by Andrew Kelly from the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute.

Commenting on affordability and public perceptions, Kelly noted that many American families deal with what he calls the “college conundrum” – rising costs of college and an uncertain return on investment, paired with stagnant or declining completion rates and wages. However, getting a college degree is more important than ever in the current economy.

Kelly said, “High school graduates fare far worse than college graduates. The wage gap is huge. People can’t afford to go to college, but they can’t afford not to go.”

Drawing from data and research at both the national and state levels, Kelly said the state of North Carolina is ahead of the rest of the south, as well as other parts of the country, when it comes to higher education policies and university completion rates. The state has much better six-year completion rates – about 63 percent.

Addressing the range of programs that universities implement to improve student outcomes, Dr. Kelly highlighted the need for more evaluation and the importance of investing scarce dollars in programs for which the benefits justify such investment.

Evaluating outcomes and making hard choices were sentiments echoed by others throughout the day, including Provost Johnson Akinleye of North Carolina Central University and Junius Gonzales, the UNC system’s Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Success is more than just a GPA

Kyra Patel, a senior majoring in statistics at Appalachian State University, was one of two students who served on a panel at the symposium. She thinks its important for faculty and students to develop a mentor-mentee relationship to help students navigate their college experience beyond what is taught in a classroom.

“I think this was really interesting from the student perspective,” she said. “Success is more than just a GPA. Students aren’t just numbers. I would love to see more mentorship come out of the symposium, having faculty and staff reach out more and put a human face to the students’ performance.”

Written by Phillip Ramati


A Message from Margaret Spellings on the Student Success Symposium

UNC Student Success Symposium, 2016 from University of North Carolina on Vimeo.

Learn more about the symposium, including videos and PowerPoint slides from presenters.


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