Episode 56 - Increasing Retention and Graduation: SUU’s Student Services Programs

Dr. Jared Tippets, VP of Student Affairs at SUU, and Dr. Eric Kirby, AVP of Student Affairs (Completion and Student Success) join us on this week’s podcast to discuss SUU’s innovative retention strategy. The group review SUU’s history of student retention and how the subtle title change from ‘academic advisor’ to ‘student success coach’ has transformed the way students interact with the academic advising department.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions to Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and I’m joined in-studio today, as I usually am, by Scott Wyatt. President, how are you?

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks Steve. It’s nice to be here.

Meredith: And now that spring is sort of not just a memory…

Wyatt: Or a dream.

Meredith: Or a hoped-for dream, yeah. [Both laugh] Things are starting to look up in Cedar City in terms of the weather and we’re glad about that and our students are glad about that and we’re approaching the end of yet another academic semester, one that we feel has been very successful. And one of the reasons that SUU has gained quite a lot, actually, of national notoriety for innovative programs, has been around retention and graduation and the things that have to do, largely, with Student Services. So, we’ve invited two important members of our Student Services staff here to join with us today for the podcast. Will you please introduce them to our audience?

Wyatt: Yes, thanks Steve. So, welcome Dr. Jared Tippets, Vice President of Student Affairs.

Dr. Jared Tippets: Thank you, President. Nice to be with you.

Wyatt: And Dr. Eric Kirby. Your title just escaped me.

Dr. Eric Kirby: You’re good. Yeah, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs (Completion and Student Success).

Wyatt: There you go.

Kirby: Thanks for having us.

Wyatt: So, we have…I think that everybody knows that retention is everyone’s job. But when it comes to retention, to advising, you two are kind of the masterminds of organizing things and giving us ideas and staying current on what the best practices are so that we can all be more successful. Today, we’re going to talk about student advising and how to take that from just being a great service to being…to the science of it. How is that most successful? How has advising changed and where to we see it continuing to evolve? So, what do you think? Start this out.

Tippets: Yeah. One of the things that is fairly typical around the country is a movement from traditional academic course scheduling to a more holistic student success advising model. When we arrived on campus four years ago, our academic advisors, with all the best intentions, were meeting with as many students as they could to help those students identify the courses that they needed to take for the next semester. But, we discovered that academic advising plays a really important role in helping students feel connected to the university through their academic advisors and moved to a model where our academic advisors now view their jobs as being student success coaches for each of our students where they care about them individually, want to know more about what’s going on in their lives. They want to spend time getting to know the student on a personal level, making an authentic, deep connection with that student, and help them identify which courses they need to take to move on to the next semester.

Kirby: And I think one of the reason that academic advisors are so critical in this role is that, besides faculty, academic advisors are one of the few groups across campus that will consistently and regularly meet with 100% of the student body. So, they get that face time each semester, each year, to have that impact on the student. And if all advisors are doing is treating it as a glorified registrar where they’re just talking about classes, we’re missing a golden opportunity to make those connections and really start introducing that holistic advising. So, what we really focused in on was making sure advisors were shifting that mindset and having the most positive impact possible with the students that we knew that were going to meet with semester-in and semester-out.

Wyatt: It’s almost as if you’ve said, “We’re not a service organization anymore. It’s not a student service, but rather, an outcome organization.” Oftentimes I can go to work and feel like I’m busy all day but I’m not sure I actually got anything done. [Laughs] So, advisors can take questions all day long and feel like they’ve been very successful because they’ve answered all of the questions well and they showed up early and stayed late, but maybe they’re not talking to the right students and they’re not asking the right questions and that they’re not interjecting themselves into things that are going to make a difference for students rather than just answering their questions about scheduling. Is that what we’re…?

Kirby: That’s exactly right. And I think one of the things was giving our advisors permission to not treat every student the same. That there are some students that literally just need a pat on the back and the encouragement that, “You’re doing good.” And that’s a 5-minute conversation. “Let’s check your DegreeWorks and you’re good.” And then being able to shift time to other students that truly do need them and need that extra counseling and guidance and whatnot. Giving permission for academic advisors to actually go out among the students, to go meet students on their own turf. If you’re an advisor and you’re in Performing and Visual Arts, go behind stage during a performance or practice and be there afterward to meet with the students that can’t come in between the 8:00 and 5:00. Aviation, go hang out at the hangar where the students are and so, taking it to the students as opposed to just letting them come in. And these are shifts as well that we’ve made in light of the Generation Z that’s flooding into higher ed, which is a very unique and interesting demographic that’s coming in, and we’ve got to be more proactive in going to them as opposed to waiting for them to come to us. And we’ve given our advisors permission to do that.

Tippets: Eric used the word “proactive” and I think that’s a big shift in the model that we have tried to infuse on our campus. Rather than being reactive and, as you described earlier, and wait in our offices for students to come to us with questions, instead, we are encouraging our advisors to be very proactive to identify those students who may be at risk for not persisting on campus or may have life struggles and going to them to see what they can do to help that student be successful. Very different model. To get to that point, we’ve had to arm our advisors to with a tremendous amount of data on each of our students, we’ve had to give them permission to do things differently as Eric described and it’s been really successful for them. And I think they’ll all tell you they enjoy their jobs a lot more today than they ever have before. They really feel like they’re making a big difference in the lives of the students and they know their students a whole lot better than they ever did before.

Wyatt: So, when I was a college student, I would schedule an appointment with the advisor, ask a few questions, then I’d go register my classes. What are the…and I don’t know that that advisor knew anything particular about me other than what we had just had in conversations. You said “data.” What do you mean by arming them with data? That’s new.

Tippets: Yeah. As Eric said, our academic advisors each have a case load or a cohort that they’re responsible for. We like to think of these students almost as their team and they all care about all of these students. They don’t know all of them equally, but they need to know something about each of them. And so, we try to say to them, “You can’t spend the same amount of time on every student. You need to know which students need you most and when they need you most so that you can support that student.” And so, we need to arm them with the right amount of data. A lot of data. And we collect that in a variety of ways to learn what students are concerned about, what they’re excited about, what they’re nervous about, what they view as challenges as it relates to all sorts of things in and out of the classroom. And, in fact, primarily mostly out of the classroom.

Kirby: So, some of the data, President, that we use, take for example when a student doesn’t show up to their appointment. That right there is one of the biggest red flags that we have found that that student is potentially struggling or likely to drop out of not persist. And so, that is one piece of data that becomes a big red flag. Our intake questionnaire, which we refer to as the T-Bird Takeoff Questionnaire, TTQ, that arms our advisors with a wealth of data as far as how many hours in high school did students study? What are they most nervous about?

Wyatt: What is this question, Eric? What questionnaire…how many questions are in this?

Kirby: Yeah.

Wyatt: Give us kind of an idea of what you’re talking about.

Kirby: So, the TTQ comes with about 45 questions that every student that’s coming to SUU will take.

Wyatt: So, this is a questionnaire they fill out before their first day of class?

Kirby: Yeah, correct. They’ll do it over the summer. As soon as they pay their enrollment deposit, they get an email from me welcoming them to SUU and then inviting to take the TTQ. And it gives us a wealth of information as far as every question was deliberately put in there that is a retention red flag that helps identify which students are going to be at risk before they ever set foot on our campus. So, our advisors can sort through that and honestly rank their cohort before the semester is even started. We do a third week survey. The third week of every semester we launch a third week survey, we call it a “temperature check” to our students that just asks a series of seven questions that are based around emotional, physical, financial, extracurricular, things like that and just has them rank, every student, rank where they’re at. How are they feeling? Those come back and immediately re-prioritize or re-sort cohorts for our advisors to know who we need to go after. We do a midterm survey among our students. Early Alerts that faculty submit in on students who are struggling give us that “just in time” data. And so, we’ve got to…the point of all this is creating a culture where our advisors know that they can stop what they’re doing and re-shift or re-focus in on the Early Alerts or the students who are dinging off of the third week survey and make sure that we’re carving out enough time for them to go after those students and they’re not just chained to their desk all day.

Wyatt: So, they’re able to look at the cohort of students they’re responsible for and, before school starts, they understand which students they need to put the most attention too?

Tippets: Right, they basically put them in three buckets.

Wyatt: Three buckets.

Tippets: Those that they’re concerned about, they’re nervous about, they need to get to know better, those that are kind of an in-the-middle and then those that they think are going to be on their way to success.

Wyatt: And then over the course of the semester, they’re continually getting more information. These Early Alerts and surveys that say, “I need to adjust my buckets.”

Tippets: Correct.

Wyatt: Or, “Somebody is in trouble this week…”

Tippets: Right.

Wyatt: “I need to reach out.”

Kirby: That’s exactly right.

Tippets: That’s right.

Kirby: So, it really is that just in time communication. Students live a lifetime, if you will, within that 16-week period. They experience everything that life has to offer them from the honeymoon phase the first few weeks to homesickness to then struggling to get along and roommates. I mean, it’s a life shrunk down in 16 weeks. And so, we can’t just assume that because they were 4.0 student coming in that they’re going to stay in our green bucket the rest of the semester, because they may really struggle come week four or five. So, we’ve got to create that plan that campaigns the flexibility that just ebbs and flows with students going through this life cycle of 16 weeks.

Wyatt: Well, Steve, you and I weren’t at risk. I mean, there’s no reason for an advisor to spend much time when we were students.

Kirby : They probably thought you were both a lost cause.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: They might have. They wouldn’t have known, but, I mean, I was going to graduate, and you were going to graduate, so…

Meredith: Yeah, and I was in music, so they didn’t really care. [All laugh] It wasn’t as…you know? Another musician.

Wyatt: But they probably gave us the same amount of time they gave everybody else.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: And the advisor never called me. I always initiated that. And if you’re initiating the conversation with your advisor, that probably means that you’re ok. [All laugh]

Tippets: That’s exactly right.

Wyatt: It’s the ones that are…that don’t know enough to call.

Meredith: Yep.

Tippets: Yep.

Wyatt: That might be struggling.

Tippets: That’s right.

Kirby: Yeah, we refer to them as the “high flyers.” And the high flyers are very proactive, they’re the ones that are doing the outreach, “Am I on track? Are these courses jiving up? Where’s my four-year degree plan?” And those are students, again, that usually just need a five-minute, ten minute check in, pat on the back, reassurance. And then it frees up the rest of that half an hour to go after some of these other…

Wyatt: So, how many students would you think are in the high flyer group?

Kirby: I would put it at 20, 25, 30 percent that, generally speaking, are going to do well no matter what we do.

Wyatt: So, if it’s a quarter…this is an interesting thought, right? If it’s a quarter to a third, then that means that the advisor’s workload can be instantly dropped by a quarter to a third?

Tippets: That’s right.

Kirby: Correct.

Wyatt: Not completely because they’re giving a little bit of attention to that group, but not any more than they need.

Tippets: Yeah. We know that advisors can effectively serve, on an effective basis, probably about 250 students. But each of their cohorts are anywhere from 350-400. Now, we talk internally about a goal of dropping that just a little bit smaller so that they can spend more time with those students who need it, but you’re right. There is a portion of every one of their cohorts that they don’t spend a whole lot of time with who are very successful, these students.

Kirby: The question, though, and I think the issue becomes you don’t know, necessarily, who that top 20, 30 percent is every single week.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Kirby: So, someone could start that way and maybe stay that way for the first half of the semester and then all of the sudden, mom gets cancer, they have a…they get in a car wreck, whatever it may be, and all of the sudden…

Wyatt: Roommate problems…

Kirby: They’re all of the sudden in your red and yellow. So, while it’s true that in any given moment, the fact remains that students typically won’t stay in these buckets permanently throughout their time at SUU. And so, we’ve got to keep that in mind with cohorts that you can have a red jump up to a green and then back down to a yellow and that’s just the ebb and flows of student life.

Wyatt: You’re also doing something that is pretty novel, and that is the advisors actually register the freshman students. Talk about that.

Kirby: Yeah, so one of the things we recognized in higher ed generally and here on our campus was that a lot of students were taking excess credits that they didn’t necessarily need to graduate. So, talking with students, talking with parents, we recognize that there was a lot of confusion coming in as far as, “How my AP or concurrent enrollment credits would transfer,” “What were co- and prerequisites?” “Which math did I absolutely need in order to become a doctor? What if I didn’t know which math was going to be best to get me to an undecided major?” So, we decided to try something and take that out of the hands of the students so they could focus in on moving to college, getting their books, getting their homes, getting all of these other things that were causing them stressors, and we took it out of their hands. So, using that T-Bird Takeoff Questionnaire, where the first section of it is dealing with retention questions, the second part asks students about course preferences and majors and what are their interests and their hobbies? And then using that second section of the TTQ, our advisors go to work on hand registering 100% of the students. Now, it’s not that our advisors just do it and then ship it out and say, “Here you go.” The other part of that is to help foster and build a relationship between the advisor and the incoming student over the summer. So, after the course is developed, advisor reaches out to the student and spends all summer doing this, “Scott, here’s your schedule. I want to walk through it, does this look good? I want to tell you why we put you in these classes and how it’s going to help you.” “Oh, this looks great except I have a job in the morning.” “Cool, let’s go ahead and readjust.” And it really starts fostering those connections that we need to create this holistic advising structure where they have a good relationship with the advisor and school hasn’t even started yet.

Tippets: It also is important in helping to establish the advisor as expert.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Tippets: In terms of what courses they should take and someone they can come back to to seek guidance from. What was happening prior to his model is that students, before they ever came to college, were relying on older siblings, cousins, parents, others who had attended college to guide them through the process of creating their first semester schedule. And then they often would work with an advisor to say, “Does this look OK?” before school started as part of our summer orientation experience, but they had relied heavily upon their parents or their siblings or someone else. And then, when the advisor might offer a suggest change, they were not sure which to believe. This person that I have lived with and trust, my parents, my sister, brother, or this person on campus that’s trying to tell me to take something else? This process has really helped build that relationship of trust with their academic advisor.

Kirby: And there’s two metrics that I guess we look at to see, “Is it working?” And one of the things is usually around July 15th, we open up the schedules, meaning any student can go back in and mess with their schedule if they want to after the advisor and that student have spent all summer doing it. First year when we did this, we opened it up and said, “Students, it’s open if you want to go in and change your classes.” And I think out of the entire student body we had 8? 10 students at most go in and tweak their schedules after July 15th. Which means they were good, they were comfortable with the classes, they knew why they were in and what they were doing. We also have had a significant amount of parents reach out to our Parent Family office saying, “Thank you. What a relief.” Especially for first-gen parents that have never experienced college or know what that’s like, it relieves a lot of those stressors. The second key point we love to look at is we keep track of, we call them “repeat offenders.” Students who come back to visit their academic advisor and we’re seeing that that is beginning to increase, which is positive in our world, because that means that students are seeing academic advisors as the experts and are going in for that holistic help, that guidance, “How am I doing?” “How am I graduating?” So, those are some things that are positive signs on this end that it’s working and doing what we need it to do.

Wyatt: This is a lot of extra work.

Kirby: It is.

Tippets: It is.

Wyatt: It’s not just showing up and responding. This is a whole paradigm shift.

Kirby: Absolutely.

Wyatt: And…

Tippets: This is…if you don’t if I jump in here, this is all part of the culture shift that we’ve tried to create not only in academic advising, but across the entire division of student affairs and those offices that interface with students. But we have a mantra by which we live and operate, and that is that we will make decisions about how we spend our time and our money and the way we approach our jobs based on 1) “What’s best for students,” 2) “What’s best for the university,” 3) “What’s best for the department or the unit or my office,” and 4) “What’s best for me”. What we see across higher education is that oftentimes, people are making decisions in the reverse order, based on 1) “What’s best for me and my career?” And, “What makes me look good?” Or, “What’s easy for me?” 2) “What’s best for my department?” “That’s not my job, that’s someone else’s job. That’s another office, go see them.” 3) “What’s best for the university?” and 4) “If it happens to benefit students, that’d be great.” But when we can approach our work through the lens of, “What’s best for students in the university?” Good things happen when it’s no longer about us. And that means, that sometimes, it’s a lot of work and sometimes it’s not very efficient in terms of the way we spend our time, but if it’s what’s best for students then that is what’s important to us and the results speak for themselves.

Wyatt: So, what are you seeing as a result of this huge shift from being a response…from advisors being kind of the response to questions to the advisors taking charge and managing their time and having the data to know who needs help when and how much help? What are you seeing as a reaction to that?

Kirby: Yeah, I think some of the things that are fun to see, and Jared eluded to it a little earlier, we’re seeing, I think, more satisfaction among our academic advisors. They’re finding more fulfillment in the day-to-day. It’s not just a processing machine ,it’s not just the “sit behind your desk and whoever shows up.” They’re finding more fulfillment getting to know students and helping the students succeed in all aspects of their lives.

Wyatt: You make their job harder and it’s more enjoyable.

Kirby: It is, right?

Wyatt: Because it is a harder job.

Kirby: It is. And we could talk a whole other podcast on the law of sacrifice and how actual difficulty makes you fonder of what you’re trying to do and find more satisfaction. I think at the end of the day, human beings prefer the difficult track as opposed to the easy track. And they’re finding a lot more fulfillment, they’re connecting more with students, and in turn, students are finding that advocate on campus, they’re feeling more connected. The more knowledge students have about their path and where they’re going, the more confident they feel in that direction. So, it’s fostering connection, sense of belonging, confidence, they know they can ask questions, they feel comfortable changing their majors, they know it’s OK to change your major. They’re OK with a lot of this uncertainty that comes with being a college student.

Tippets: Yeah, many of our academic advisors got into this career because they wanted to help students and so, they feel a deep sense of satisfaction in their work. But you asked about what other things have we seen as evidence of the success. For instance, when we started this process, we looked at the average number of students seeing or visited…that an advisor would visit with in a day, and that has way more than doubled in terms of the number of students. The number of hours spend advising. They’re no longer waiting, they’re being proactive, the number of hours spent advising in a day has gone way up.

Kirby: No-shows have dropped from 19% to 8% so students are keeping their appointments and wanting to meet with their advisors. We’re getting less complaints about the rack numbers that we put on first year students to have them come in and meet with their advisors. All around, the surveys that we do yearly on our academic advisors have increased year after year after year as far as satisfaction…

Tippets: Knowledge…

Kirby: Knowledge and how students are rating their academic advisors. So, it’s…we’re seeing a lot of positive things from just anecdotally to survey results that are showing that it’s working.

Wyatt: And then the ultimate outcome, what is the ultimate goal?

Tippets (25:00): Well, the ultimate goal is to help students achieve their goals. Whether it’s a credential or a degree or other life experiences, we want to help students achieve their goal. But obviously, we track internal metrics that are important to us like retention rates and graduation rates and persistence rates and are students staying on progress toward degree and all of those sorts of things, and all of those metrics have gone way up as an institution over the last four years since implementing this.

Meredith: And President, I should tell you that Jared and Eric make my job much easier. When I go to give talks at accreditation things or I visit with our accreditation liaison, one of the first things that always gets mentioned and discussed is, “Wow, you are really high in your peer schools in graduation and retention rate. We’ve seen significant increases here. You must be doing something right.” And I agree. The…one of the hard things for students, I think, is they look at their parents as experts, they may not say that out loud, but they look at their parents as experts, they look at their faculty as mentors and experts, but really, it’s not the job of either of those groups to help you navigate college life. It is, I mean, it’s great to have a faculty mentor that can help you think through your professional goals and, “This is where I want to be” from the perspective of someone that’s maybe inside that profession, but in terms of just getting through life, the identification that students have with your office and the increasing effectiveness there is a much better way for us to spend our resources, in my opinion, than almost anything else that we can do to ensure student success. I’ll give you a great example here. My kids, regularly, “Hey, tell me about what should I sign up for?” And I say, “Don’t ask me because here…” In the first quarter, then quarters at the University of Utah my freshman year, I had a 7:30am bowling class. No one advised me to take the 7:30am bowling class. The teacher was frequently hungover, and we didn’t’ bowl the entire day just because it hurt his head. So, it was not a particularly effective class for me. I learned a little bit about bowling strategy, but, as I pointed out to him, “As I understand it, it’s to knock all the pins down.” There’s more to it than that, of course, but I was not a really great resource to them because, as Scott has pointed out, we didn’t spend a lot of time and get a lot of guidance in what to sign up for. And as expensive as college is now, the less time that we waste taking 7:30 bowling, the better, right?

Tippets: Yeah.

Kirby: That’s exactly right.

Tippets: That’s right.

Kirby: And I think one of the other areas that was important for us to realize is our academic advisors are the experts and they need to be treated as such. And when we came on, we realized they were spending a significant amount of their time doing administrative paperwork, processing major change forms, signing people in and out of classes, and these were things that we could easily take off their plate. Using an analogy that Jared uses all the time, we weren’t treating our academic advisors as dentists. We were treating them as kind of front office assistants or dental hygienists, but not the ones that are actually…need to solve the big problems, the big cavities. So, taking a lot of that stuff off and kicking it to the peer mentors and they handle a lot of the administrative paperwork now, and now our advisors are seeing the students who really are having these issues and need to have these deeper conversations and these life altering path adjustments. Freeing up their time to do what they do best, I think, has really helped them. Where they’re not showing up to work and then just meeting with students, signing change of major forms and whatnot. They’re actually being able to counsel and help these students find success.

Wyatt: So, you’ve got professional advisors who are kind of like, as you said, they’re the dentist or the professional. And then you’ve got office staff that can do simpler tasks or tasks that don’t require the services of the professional. They’re both professional, but the level of which their training is. And then you’ve got another level that can take care of things, that’s the peer mentors. Tell us about what you’re doing with peer mentors.

Kirby: Yeah, so we’ve developed a peer-mentoring system, we refer to them as ACES, stands for Assistant Coaches for Excellence and Success. Every incoming student gets paired up with one of our peer mentors that are typically upper-class students. Each ACE has a cohort of about 120 incoming students. These ACES will reach out to an incoming student within 24 hours of that student paying their enrollment deposit to welcome them to SUU, let them know, “I’m here with you your entire first year. I’m going to help you find your books, I’m going to give you a personalized visit over the summer, I’m going to answer any questions I can about your class schedule or kick you to your academic advisor, I can give you a tour.” And then throughout the fall and spring semester, these peer mentors are regularly checking in with their students, having one on one meetings with them, getting them involved in clubs and organizations, honor’s society, just being their friend. We’ve recognized that incoming students are sometimes more willing to talk day-to-day struggles with a peer mentor versus coming to an administrator or an advisor. And so, our ACES are kind of that frontline defense on just helping students just recognize that, “Yeah, homesickness is real, and you’ll get through it and here’s how I got through it.” That, “It’s OK to struggle with classes and here are some resources that I’ve taken advantage of as a student here at SUU that you should look into” or “Hey, here’s why it’s important to get involved or be connected” or “Here’s how you navigate professor office hours” and “Here’s some do’s and don’ts.” And we find that it’s become a wonderful resource for students who have questions but maybe don’t feel comfortable walking into any of our offices to ask them. They can go into the Nest and ask any one of their…these peer mentors just a lot of these basic questions. And they get questions about how to ask a girl out, what are cool dates to do, what’s the best place to eat? I mean, you…

Tippets: Where do I get a haircut? Where do I get dry cleaning? You name it.

Meredith: Yeah, sure.

Kirby: Yeah, so it’s been a fun program and ACES work hard and hand in hand with our academic advisors and make that system just run smoothly. So…

Wyatt: You used the word “The Nest.” What do you mean by The Nest?

Tippets: The Nest is our student help center on campus. Many institutions will have a one stop shop that they’ll create. The national model is is that you would bring a professional into that space from a variety of offices that could solve any question that a student may have. Typically, you would have someone from academic advising there, someone from financial aid, from the registrar’s office and a variety of different services in that space. We treat our student help center a little bit different. What we do is house our peer mentors out of that space and, instead, train all our peer mentors to know everything they can know about the resources on campus and then, when a student comes to The Nest or our student help center seeking guidance, the peer mentors or the ACES will then walk students to the appropriate resources on campus. The reason that we like that model is the magic happens in the walk. That’s the time when students get to…that the peer mentors get to ask additional questions and follow up with them about things their concerned about. They’ll walk them to financial aid and then here’s what’s fun. Imagine that a student has a question about scholarships. While they’re walking to financial aid, these peer mentors have been trained to coach that student through what this is going to look like when they get to the office. They help provide them with some of those self-advocacy skills so that they’ll say, “Alright, when we get to the office, here’s what we’re going to ask. Here’s what you’re going to ask.” Right? And they model that behavior, they even do a quick role play maybe while they’re walking there. And then they say to the student, “And don’t worry, if you get stuck, I’m going to just be waiting behind you and I can assist as needed.” And so, they model that. “OK, when you get there, ask them about this” or “How do I defer a scholarship” or “How do I…” So on and so forth. Or if it’s the counseling center if they’re seeking support for a mental illness or emotional struggles or whether it’s to the registrar’s office or a variety…it could be a hundred different things, the tutoring center, but we love that our peer mentors then take students to the appropriate resource on campus rather than just waiting for students to come in. Last year, in fact, The Nest is a fairly new concept for us. We’ve only been doing it for…this is our second school year, but in the first school year, we had over 7,000 referrals where students, faculty and others brought students to The Nest, or a self-referral from a student into that space seeking guidance.

Kirby: And it’s very important, the point that you made there Jared, because one of the things that for the criticism that we sometimes get is, “It seems like you’re doing a lot of hand holding. It seems like with the registering of students and the ACES model” and to a certain extent, we are up front. I openly admit that. But through these things that often people don’t see, we’re helping these students who throughout high school or throughout their family lives really haven’t had the opportunity to adult, to find that self-advocacy or whatnot. We’re helping them that first semester of learning that for themselves. And it’s interesting because every spring semester, the ACES start getting a little bit depressed because their students don’t come in as often and so they think they have failed as an ACE. “Well, why won’t my student come see me?” And they don’t understand that that’s a sign of the success in that when we follow up with these students, they now feel comfortable walking down to financial aid on their own, they now feel fine going and talking with the professor. And those are positive signs that we see. Another thing where we hand register students at the beginning…for example, we just went through the registration cycle to register for fall. Out of 1,200 students, freshman, that registered on the very first day, only 40 of them came into The Nest for help. The other 1,100 and whatever were able to register on their own because we had taken the time to show them during fall semester. So, it’s a neat program in and of itself in that it’s really helping students become adults and figure out how to advocate for themselves, resolve conflicts, communicate and develop these things we need these students to know before they graduate.

Wyatt: And you call it The Nest because our mascot is a Thunderbird.

Kirby: Correct, yeah.

Wyatt: So, it’s kind of like, “This is home.”

Kirby: “This is home. A little bit of nurturing will take place in there.”

Tippets: Yeah, a little nurturing.

Wyatt: And it’s a very prominent spot.

Tippets: Yeah, and very symbolically, we want students to be nurtured in the nest and then leave the nest.

Meredith: Leave the nest.

Kirby: Right.

Tippets: We’ll nudge them out.

Tippets: One of my favorite things that students will come into The Nest for is seeking guidance on how to get involved on campus. They have read and seen and know that they should probably get involved and they also recognize that that’s a good way to make friends and find their niche on campus, but they don’t know exactly how to go about doing that. So, they’ll come in and talk to their ACE or another ACE that might be there to help them and they ACE will sit down with them and talk through a list of clubs and organizations and what I love about it is oftentimes, these students will say, “OK, I want to do” for instance “The photography club, but I’m nervous to go to the club meeting on Thursday night” or whenever it is next week. So, the ACE will say to them, “I’ll go wit you! That will be great!” And what they’ll do between now and the meeting is they’ll contact the club president and say, “Hey, Steve, I’m bringing a student with me that is really interested in photography and wants to join your club and I’m hoping that you can just make a special effort to help that student feel comfortable.” And then they’ll say to that student, “Let’s meet up 5 minutes, 10 minutes before in The Nest and we’ll go to the meeting together and I’ll introduce you and get you off and running.” So, it takes one meeting. So many students struggle with just crossing that barrier, that threshold of opening a door to walk into a meeting. And an ACE will just help them get through it and then they’re off and running. But this generation, Generation Z, needs sometimes just that extra bit of support. A friend to hold their hand and get them there.

Wyatt: Well, and then they’re learning how to be a friend and so, when they become a junior, then they take on that role and we’re actually mentoring people in great customer service.

Tippets: That’s right.

Wyatt: Because we’ve all called a customer service line where we had somebody that went overboard in helping us and we’ve all called a customer service line where the person did not go overboard to help us, and it changes how we feel…

Kirby: Yeah, absolutely.

Wyatt: About the organization. Well, that’s great. So, one of the ultimate outcomes is retention/completion. What’s happened?

Tippets: Yeah, we’ve had a lot of…

Wyatt: What’s happened on retention?

Tippets: We’ve had a lot of fun and, thanks to the hard word of so many people on campus, but our institution has had a 9 percentage point run in retention over the last three years. We went from 64% retention up to now 73%, which is quite a gain and that doesn’t happen very often across higher education. Not as fast as it’s happened here. So, that’s thanks to the hard work of an incredible group of faculty and staff and we’re going to try to keep taking it higher. We hope this year that we see another little bump and each year just a little bit better, a little bit better. Changing more lives is the goal, and that’s what happens when we can get them to come back for another year.

Meredith: Particularly it’s true that that 9% increase is impressive given that we have also grown enormously during that same group of three years. So, as the group of students that could possibly not retain has gotten larger, we’ve actually done better with an even ever larger group of students, which is pretty amazing.

Wyatt: Yeah, enrollments have grown by 32% in four years. That’s 32% in headcounts, 32% in FTE, budget related FTE and all those numbers, it’s between 31 and 32.

Tippets: Yeah, and most campuses…

Wyatt: So, for retention to keep growing…and it’s 9 percentage points, not 9%.

Tippets: Correct.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: It’s more like, what? 13% increase?

Meredith: Right.

Tippets: Correct, 13% increase. Yeah, and most campuses that experience similar growth will often see a dip in the retention…

Meredith: Right.

Tippets: Because you’re just trying to keep a larger percent of a bigger whole. So, this is doubly impressive and really fun for our campus to celebrate.

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had join us in-studio today our guests Jared Tippets and Eric Kirby, who head up our nationally recognized and award-winning Student Services program. Thanks again for listening, we’ll be back again soon. Bye bye.