Student Resilience: How One Institution is Helping At-Risk Freshmen Seize a Second Chance

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by Elizabeth Ross Hubbell and Sarah Seigle, Conference Directors, Academic Impressions

We've written a lot in past articles about the importance of resilience or "grit" to student persistence, and about what some offices on campus can do to help students—particularly first-generation and PELL-eligible students—build their resilience. Middle Tennessee State University has adopted a remarkably comprehensive and affordable (and therefore replicable) approach to doing so. To learn more, we spoke recently with Vincent Windrow, formerly the University’s Director of Intercultural and Diversity Affairs and now the Assistant Vice Provost for Student Success, and Dr. Rick Sluder, Vice Provost for Student Success at MTSU.

They shared with us an in-depth look at MTSU’s REBOUND program: its three key phases, the results it has produced, and practical tips for other institutions that may wish to implement a similar initiative.

What MTSU Set Out to Do

Enrollment of students at MTSU who identify as either first-generation or are PELL-eligible has increased by 24% over the past five years. Now, nearly 50% of the incoming freshman class each year (1,400 out of 2,800 students) fall into one or both of these categories.

In fall 2014, Windrow and Sluder came face-to-face with a sobering statistic: during their freshman fall semester, roughly 560 students earned a grade point average of less than a 2.0. More worrisome, if things continued as they had in the past, only about 30% of these students would return for their sophomore year. This was deeply concerning and needed to be addressed.

In January 2015, operating with limited resources, Windrow and Sluder created the REBOUND program. REBOUND would be a multi-pronged intervention that would require coordination across campus, including IT, IR, housing, advising, and tutoring services. The acronym titling the program summarizes the key messages Windrow and Sluder wish to impart to its participants:

Retake classes.
Engage your purpose.
Be intentional about attendance.
Own your future.
Understand what went wrong.
Narrow your activities.
Determine that you are going to succeed.

The core idea is that at-risk students may have "shot and missed" in their first term, but with support, they have the ability to "rebound," have a positive and productive spring semester, and remain enrolled for their second year.

Here's a closer look:

Before the Program: Persistent Communication and Outreach

The series of interventions that the REBOUND program encompasses are triggered by the arrival of fall semester grades each year. Because fall semester grades are not posted until mid-December, once the first cohort of these students are identified, there isn’t much time to ramp up this type of initiative. By the time grades are posted, commencement has already occurred, and the majority of faculty and many staff have already departed for the holiday break. Students, too, are now back home and settling into a month away from school. In short, a flurry of activity is required at a time when the university has largely idled. So outreach and invitation to participate in REBOUND has to be quick and persistent.

All outreach to students is crafted carefully. Messaging is critical since the tone in an email or letter can be a determining factor in whether an at-risk student decides to opt in to a voluntary program, do nothing, or choose simply not return for the next semester. Messages are kept invitational and supportive, but with a sense of urgency and a clear call to action (e.g., "Reserve your spot now to get prepared for a great start to the spring semester!"). Messages are also kept succinct, recognizing that a narrow window of opportunity exists to capture the attention of students.

As soon as fall semester grades are in, any freshmen with grade point averages below 2.0 receive this series of communications:

First Communication: Introduction Email
In this initial email, no real specifics are provided. Rather, this communication is designed to encourage students who may feel embarrassed by their grades, may have received a reprimand from their parents and who may be questioning whether they are college-material. Thus, the tone and timing of this email is important. As with all the communications, this email is sent from Vincent as the contact person for the program.

Second Communication: Letter to the Residence
3-4 days later, a physical letter is mailed to the student's permanent residence as a follow-up to the email. Windrow and Sluder stress the value of a traditional letter, noting that they have received many contacts from both students and parents as a result of the mailing. Often, students don't check their university email after receiving their fall grades, and the letter is the first they hear about the program. (In some cases, a parent sees the letter and asks about it.) The letter provides more specific details about the program (e.g., what "REBOUND" means, dates and times, and RSVP information), and the REBOUND schedule is included with it.

Third Communication: RSVP Reminder
In hopes that one or both of the previous communications have inspired the student, an email is scheduled to be sent December 23, reminding the student to RSVP to secure their spot in the program. The email also continues to talk up the benefits of attending REBOUND.

Fourth Communication: Welcome to REBOUND
Within 1-2 days of an RSVP being received, an email is sent to congratulate the student on their decision and remind them of the dates and times of the program. The free early dorm check-in option is presented as this email's "wow" moment.

"Many of our students are Pell-eligible, low-income. The last thing we want to do is to build a barrier to success for these or any students. Although this complimentary early check-in is REBOUND's largest budget item - $30 per participant – it serves as another sign that the university is interested in the student’s success and is willing to make that investment."
Vincent Windrow, MTSU

Fifth Communication: Last Chance
This email serves as the final call for the students who haven’t RSVP'd. Sent two days before the deadline, it is short and to the point. It emphasizes urgency.

Final Communication
This email is sent the morning before REBOUND begins. Written in a welcoming tone, it contains any necessary reminders and helps to mitigate any last minute attrition from those who RSVP'd.

At the Program: "Repositioning"

After the REBOUND students check in early to the residence halls, they spend the next day and a half meeting with advisors, attending workshops on subjects like time management and study skills, and hearing testimonials about resilience, grit, and rebounding from faculty and leaders (including the President and Provost). College deans step up to provide lunch for students to make sure they feel supported. Throughout the program, the message to the students is: We have your back.

(In ensuring widespread administrative and faculty participation in the program, the university also wanted to send the same message to those developing REBOUND, and any such future entrepreneurial initiative to intervene with struggling students: We have your back.)

During REBOUND, each participant meets with his or her advisor to review their course schedule for the spring semester and to ensure that if the student needs to retake a class he or she failed in the fall, the student is repositioned with the classes they need. The student is also introduced to the array of support services the university provides and to encourage them to take fuller advantage of these services moving forward. Academic support and tutoring services are introduced with specific attention to dispelling stereotypes about students who access these programs, and Windrow and Sluder also arrange group and one-on-one counseling meetings for the REBOUND students with financial aid advisors to ensure that they understand their options for financing their degrees as they advance through the institution.

The ethos behind all of this activity, Windrow and Sluder add, is a "repositioning"; the goal is to impress upon the students that everyone has experienced setbacks, but there are many options for rebounding.

What Results MTSU Has Seen

Here are the early results:

The fall-to-fall retention rate among the 96 students who participated in REBOUND in January of 2015 is 46%, compared with 29% for the non-participant comparison group. Due to the success of the REBOUNDers, MTSU’s overall fall-to-fall retention rate for all students who achieved below a 2.0 their first fall semester is 32%, up from 29% the year prior.

Tips for Your Institution

"The beauty of the program is its simplicity and affordability."
Vincent Windrow, MTSU

For Windrow and Sluder, moving the needle on your retention rate is all about applying focus and concentrated effort in one place. When institutions adopt a more "smorgasbord" approach with multiple initiatives across multiple departments serving multiple cohorts of students, results are often dispersed, and it can be hard to tell what's really working. Their advice for colleagues at other institutions is:

  1. Focus on one cohort at one point in the academic calendar where you're likeliest to make the biggest difference.
    Take a hard look at your own institutional data. Look for large subgroups of students where initiatives are likely to have the most immediate impact. A program like REBOUND can provide a lift in retention rate because of the large number of students involved.
  2. Leverage the full power of the university.
    REBOUND has also been successful because colleges across the university are involved in the program. A program like REBOUND focused only in one college, for example, would not have produced the effect needed to impact overall retention.  When every college at the university is working together on a program like REBOUND, there is a synergistic effect. Windrow and Sluder emphasize the need to function as "one university," noting that outcomes are much different when the full power of the university is harnessed to accomplish a common objective.
  3. Build momentum by celebrating small wins.
    Highlight the number of students who attend, thank all the campus participants who stepped forward to serve this at-risk group, give students opportunities to express their gratitude, and when data on increases in retention becomes available, celebrate.
  4. Get the institution's academic leaders involved.
    When the president and provost take even a few minutes to speak with students during the REBOUND program, their presence conveys a powerful message both to students and to the staff about the importance of the program and what it can empower students to achieve.