Episode 8: Jumpstart Retention

Jumpstart is a different approach to general education, but does it also improve the retention of the students who have gone through the program?

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everybody. I am Steve Meredith and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education a podcast with Scott Wyatt the president of Southern Utah University. I am joined by President Wyatt today. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good Morning Steve.

Meredith: Today we are going to talk about the Jumpstart program. We have already a podcast about this and what a unique and interesting experience it is for both faculty and students, and I know you'll review that a little bit, but the focus of today's podcast is going to be about retention and how significant Jumpstart has been as we begin to study student retention from first year to second year in terms of increasing the likelihood that a student is  going to return.

Wyatt: Yeah, so the...As we have progressed from 50, 60, 70 years ago until today, everyone in higher education is feeling more weight, more responsibility to ensure that the student is successful in graduating. I think when you and I went nobody was looking over our shoulder.

Meredith: Yeah, we've mentioned that we felt all alone on that first day of college.

Wyatt: Nobody was calling us or connecting with us, we didn't get emails before we started school, saying "Hey, we hope you complete and if you have problems see us here or there" or whatever. But now it seems like that is a major focus at universities, to see that students finish. We are more concerned about students finishing than students starting. It's not how many come to our university, it's how many successfully complete with a degree or a certificate, and what that means.

Meredith: A that's a great focus for SUU. I know that completion, which has built into it retention, is a major topic.

Wyatt: It's really important to us. We have made an effort to distinguish ourselves based on these things. So, amongst all public regional universities in the eight intermountain west states, Southern Utah University has the highest graduation rate, and you don't get a high graduation rate, unless you continually improve your retention rate—the number of students that come back for the second year.

Meredith: Sure.

Wyatt: And then continue coming back. Well, most of the effort over the last decades to try to improve our retention and then completion has been focused on things like climbing walls, clubs, advising, career counseling...all of the "connectedness" that's not necessarily part of class.

Meredith: Right, and important things.

Wyatt: Yeah, really important things.

Meredith: Sure.

Wyatt: We keep adding more mental health counselors to help people move through really difficult times or challenges that they have so they can stay engaged.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But there hasn't been, over the last decades, a lot of effort put into seeing how much teaching itself can have an influence on retention. Until recently. And now we're starting to see more and more thought put into the teaching side for retention. And that is great isn't that the ultimate? I mean, wouldn't we like to think that the reason for students to go to school is to learn? And if they are learning great stuff, that they want to keep coming back?

Meredith: Absolutely. So, remind our listeners about the Jumpstart program. We have talked about it before, but give us a little one-minute primer again?

Wyatt: Okay so jumpstart is the name of a integrating General Education program. And this program is that all general education classes get put into one cohort. It looks like one class. The class starts Monday at nine o'clock and goes until noon, and continues everyday for the full first freshman year. And a student in the Jumpstart program signs up and then all thirteen faculty members come to the same classroom in a blended integrated model. And at the end of the first year, the student has all general education completed.

Meredith: And it's usually based on a single topic for the year. Is that right?

Wyatt: Right. So the topic, might be "Public Lands and National Parks"—that's kind of the place where we are. Or it might be "Freedom and Liberty," or it might be "The Active Life." There is a long list of possibilities.

Meredith: And students are able to hear a different perspective on that topic from those thirteen different faculty members that you mentioned?

Wyatt: Yeah, so if I am the political science teacher, then I am taking the curriculum that I have and I am bending it to make it relevant to this topic. And I am doing it in the classroom at the same time that the art historian is there, who is making art history relevant to the topic, or the biologist or geologist or the psychology faculty member, the math teacher, the english teacher, and the writing...we are all blending together to tell one story  that's relevant and interesting to the student.

Meredith: Well aside from sounding just like an absolute blast for both the faculty and the students that are involved - because it sounds like great fun, and you know, like a highly interesting experience - we have some data right? That shows that not only this type of course where students stay together all year long, but also the mode of teaching it - this blended mode of thirteen different faculty - has had a significant impact on retention. Is that right?

Wyatt: Yes. So there are a couple questions that we would ask about the success of this program and one question is, "Is learning better?" And another question is, "Is retention better?" They are both important. We are going to talk today about "Is retention better?" So the university has reached this fall, fall 2017, its highest retention rate, which is 71%. We have been working on this for years and it goes up and down but consistently has been kind of moving up, and this is our high water mark.

Meredith: That's great.

Wyatt: Well, how does that compare to the cohort of students that are in this integrated model that we call Jumpstart? Our first cohort of 33 students retained at just a little bit better than 90%. So they were better than 20% better retention rate than the general student population. And Steve, we thought "Well, okay so what are the possible explanations? Can we exclude them as being the main reason?" For example, we went back and said, "What was the incoming high school GPA, ACT, SAT scores?" Because we know that the more prepared the student is for university studies the more likely they are to retain.

Meredith: Sure.

Wyatt: "So is a explanation?" And the answer is, "No it's not." Because, in fact, the average student in Jumpstart, has the same - almost identical - admission index score (GPA, ACT, SAT) as does the average student at the university. So this is a very average group academically preparation-wise.

Meredith: So they are not predisposed to necessarily come back in comparison to the rest of the student population?

Wyatt: That's right. But they retained at 20% higher.

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: So, we don't take that as being an answer. But it certainly is something that deserves further exploring. So after that first cohort, then we repeated it last year with two cohorts. So now we have about 100 students who have gone through this as freshman. And we know what their retention rate is, and what we have is, is a retention rate that is almost 20% better for the Jumpstart students than for the general student population.

Meredith: Wow, so it's been consistent across those...

Wyatt:...It's been consistent. It's much better. What I would describe as fun, what's fun about this, is that perhaps the best retention program that our university has ever undergone is based on teaching.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: It is based on teaching. Now, I don't want to minimize all of the great retention work done in Student Affairs, because that is critical, but our needle has been pushed the furthest through teaching. And this is an area that we need to further study. And other universities around the country are studying the same thing. We don't know anybody that has got a program identical to our Jumpstart program, but others...other universities are experimenting with similar kinds of things. And it's just really exciting.

Meredith: I think it's interesting that Southern Utah University has chosen to focus on quality of teaching at the General Education level. Which very often...as faculty member, I can tell you in discussions with other faculty members that these are not most highly sought after classes on the faculty load list. In other words, often times, faculty members will think of their gen-ed assignment as not as interesting to them as their major courses. But, by focusing full professors - people of high regard on campus - and putting them all focused in this one gen-ed area we have been able to significantly impact retention. Is that right?

Wyatt: Right. That's right. Too often times with the demands on finances and balancing budgets and trying to get everything figured out, higher education in America has been undercutting the freshman teaching experience. So I had some faculty members at a university I am familiar with tell me that "the freshman won't need a tenured faculty member, because they have adjuncts and instructors, and…".

Meredith: ...Teaching assistants.

Wyatt:...Teaching assistants. Not to say that they're not doing a good job.

Meredith: Sure.

Wyatt: But the point is, is that our Jumpstart program has...we have invested our very best, experienced, tenured faculty members in a freshman experience that is dynamic and integrated. And the result seems to suggest that that the outcomes go way up. Now freshmen have a real...they are the ones that are on the edge. So why is it that so often times in higher education we give them the least?

Meredith: No good answer for that.

Wyatt: Why do we invest more in the junior and senior level of instruction, and less than the freshman and sophomore? It seems to me that in many cases, by the time you get to be a junior and a senior, the student is more motivated because they are headed down the track, they've got this figured out, they've got the groove.

Meredith: They have chosen a major. By definition, general educations are non-major courses.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: So they're likely to be a little more motivated by major courses, as are the faculty. But if we think about the role of General Education, it really is to foster a lifelong interest and a lifelong love of learning about whatever that topic is or whatever the course is about. And that might be the one of the single highest things that the university can aspire to, is to invest in people and their love of learning beyond the university.

Wyatt: That's right. So you put your very best foot up front, you make your front door the  best door. You put your finest faculty in a very creative method of teaching that creates these connections between the faculty and the students. These Jumpstart students in this integrated General Education model get to know their faculty member and the other students in their class rapidly. Rapidly. And they get to see all of their faculty members engaged together at the same time on the same topics. That is really exciting, both for the students and for the faculty members.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And I think that they feel like they are treated more like an adult in a sense. Because instead of just saying, "This is what we care about, go take those classes," we are saying, "This is the topic you care about and we've built a General Education curriculum around the topic you care about. And we're all showing up to help you learn more about that topic." And the result is that, I think, we have a lot more work to do. We don't...we aren't at the point where we can say absolutely anything, but we certainly have enough data back - sufficient data - to tell us, "This might be big."

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: That students are responding well, they like it, and they are coming back for more.

Meredith: You have been listening to Solutions for Higher Education with Scott Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. Thank you for listening, bye, bye.