Invested interest

Preparing students now pays off in the next chapter

An expanded school calendar to keep students on track. Tutors and peer leaders to help ensure classroom success. A revamped advising process for first-year students and an office dedicated to readying high-achieving students for opportunity.

USC does a lot to prepare students for the next chapter. Whether that means they land a great job or a national fellowship, or they get accepted by a top graduate or professional school, Carolina's investment in student success yields big returns.

Coordinate and connect

A few years ago, university leaders turned their attention to improving undergraduate student advisement. The keys? A new advising center and a pool of dedicated first-year advisers.

Claire Robinson, assistant dean for undergraduate advisement and director of the University Advising Center, says the university hired 30 professional advisers to work with first-year and transfer students. Each adviser works with about 300 students.

“This model enables a whole host of things as it relates to caseload management. First-year advisers are able to monitor their students, have longer appointments, do outreach and intervention, make sure students are on track to graduate and promote all of the different initiatives the university has to offer,” Robinson says.

In 2015, only about 30 percent of students had an assigned academic adviser, while this fall, the number has grown to 95 percent. An audit of the advising model in 2014 showed that no two offices were following the same procedures.

“Everything was disjointed, students had a very different experience if they moved from one college to the next, and advising meant 12 different things across 12 different colleges,” Robinson says. “With the standardization model that we’ve implemented with the first-year advisers, advising looks much more consistent.”

The process is clearly working. Students and advisers were surveyed in 2014 and 2017 about best practices and satisfaction with the academic advising experience. There were across-the-board increases – some substantial – in the level of satisfaction on everything from academic advisers providing accurate information about courses, programs and major requirements to advisers being able to help students choose the right major.

Asked to reply to the statement, “My academic adviser explains the purpose and requirements of the Carolina Core,” 55 percent of students agreed in 2014; the figure increased to 75 percent in 2017.

“USC has seen this model evolve quickly, with colleges investing in advising because they see direct benefits to students. Advisers use their individual connection with their advisees to promote programs such as summer and winter sessions through On Your Time as well as making effective and timely referrals to key campus offices,” Robinson says.

The next steps for the advising center include: looking at transfer advisement to help students understand what coursework will apply at USC; expanding the standardized advising model to include more sophomores, so advisers can retain their caseload from freshman to sophomore year; and implementing exploratory advising for students who decide to change their majors.

“Some data suggests that students change majors three times, and that will inherently add time to a degree and it can be more costly,” Robinson says. “To help these students make informed decisions, they can meet with an exploratory adviser and understand what credits will apply to a new program.”

But advisers also need to be connected to other departments.

“We couldn’t have advisers on an island,” says Stacey Bradley, senior associate vice president for student affairs and academic support. “We have a lot of campus resources that are high-performing and proven to be effective, so how do we connect advisers to resources? The idea of this coordinated care network emerged, and Pathfinder helped us with that.”

Pathfinder, the university’s advisement software, prioritizes outreach to students based on risk levels and success marker flags. It’s able to identify students who need help and connects advisers to career coaches, financial aid, the Student Success Center and other resources around campus.

“This ensured that we had a network to connect students and resources without saying, ‘Hey, student, why don’t you walk across campus and find somebody to help you?’” Bradley says. “This way there’s actually someone reaching out to them with a coordinated plan for how they’re going to support that student.”

It’s similar to the type of coordination and connections that are used at the Student Success Center, according to Bradley.

“Maybe a student really needs to be supported in a particular class, but that student’s schedule is such that all supplemental instruction sessions are offered at a time when the student has another class,” she explains. “We can say, ‘Hey, we recognize our schedule doesn’t work for you, so we have a tutor who can help you with that class.’ It’s about connecting students to the resources and then making sure the loop is closed.”

Mark your calendars

In January 2018, while most students were enjoying winter break with their families, some Carolina students were spending 30 hours a week in online classes such as Sport and Entertainment in American Life and Introduction to Economics.

The three-week winter session was part of the On Your Time initiative, which helps students graduate on time or early by offering supplemental courses and alternative solutions to progress toward graduation. A large number of seniors registered for the pilot winter session last January, and 70 percent of them graduated in May, says Shelley Dempsey, director of On Your Time.

“Students who took it really appreciated the opportunity to go deeper into a topic – especially some of the topics that are a little harder for them,” Dempsey says. “What would normally be down time for them over the break, they are able to utilize toward getting three additional credit hours.”

This January, the winter session will expand from seven to 12 course offerings. On Your Time also oversees the summer semester at Carolina, which allows students to take a full course load each summer and stay on track for graduation — or even get ahead.

And the effort is paying off. From 2016 to 2017, USC saw an 11 percent increase in the number of undergrads taking 12 or more hours in the summer, while the increase jumped another 15 percent from 2017 to 2018. Also over the past two summers there has been a 39 percent increase in the number of students taking online courses.

“Students are telling us it allows them to take an online course while doing an internship or while they are doing research projects,” she says. “Students are able to do those things that are so valuable while also taking an online course as part of their summer experience.”

Also offered are accelerated 8-week Fall II and Spring II classes. Beginning mid-semester and ending at the same time as a semester-long course, these provide students a chance to pick up a 3-credit class, perhaps after dropping a full semester class.

Dempsey says the reaction from students to the On Your Time investments has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s eye-opening for students when they show up in our office, sometimes on the verge of tears, and we are able to offer them a variety of options,” Dempsey says. “They feel like they’ve changed their major and they’re behind, or they had to drop a class and now they’re behind. Being able to offer them a portfolio of opportunities and say, ‘Here’s how you can catch up or stay on track or get ahead.’ The students are very happy with the opportunities.”

Think big, win bigger

At the start of the school year, hundreds of students who think they may have what it takes to be a Rhodes, Hollings or Goldwater scholar find their way to the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs.

There, students take part in what office director Novella Beskid calls “the ultimate integrated learning experience for high-ability students.” It’s a process that requires deep reflection, critical thinking and excellent written and verbal communications skills.

Since the university established the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs in 1994, Carolina students and recent alumni have won 895 national awards, earning more than $28.9 million for advanced academic study. In 2017-18, that added up to 49 national awards in these competitions, earning $2.38 million for advanced academic study.

That success doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of an intense effort by staff and faculty, who spend hours working with students to help them prepare for the application process and understand their mission. This past year, more than 150 faculty and staff members worked in partnership with the office, spending time on scholarship committees and providing guidance to national scholarship candidates. Peer mentors — current Carolina students who have won top scholarships — also are available to answer questions and offer advice.

“It requires that holistic, soul searching questions be asked,” Beskid says. “Students have to defend questions such as, ‘Why does this matter?’ and ‘Why should we care?’ It pushes students to look at that next chapter of life — academically or professionally or both — to really defend what they want to do. The faculty that serve on our committees are ones the students may not have had in class. So, they’ve got these fabulous faculty members willing to take time to probe them and help them through the process.”

And the process itself can benefit students, some of whom go all the way through before deciding not to apply for the award. According to Beskid, that’s OK.

“Although our ultimate goal is to see USC students awarded prestigious scholarships and fellowships, the preparation process itself enhances their academic and personal skills,” she says. “We want them to win a national fellowship, but whether or not they do that, we want the process to be helpful and developmental in and of itself.”

The office’s success is obvious. Before it was established, Carolina averaged 2.5 national scholarship winners per year; since then, it’s averaged 37 a year, with an average of 55 a year over the past five years.

“Last year, of the students we assessed, 100 percent found the process prompted them to reflect on their academic and/or professional goals,” she says. “And 97 percent felt the process was worthwhile regardless of the outcome.”

Supplement and support

It’s not just the students receiving extra help who benefit from the Student Success Center. The supplemental instruction peer leaders and tutors are winners, too.

Housed in the Thomas Cooper Library, the Student Success Center offers a one-stop shop for free academic support services. It also employs more than 200 students as peer leaders, tutors and supplemental instruction leaders.

“Those students see a lot of benefits. They’re building mature relations with faculty and staff, building community,” says Dana Talbert, the director of the Student Success Center. “They feel more invested in the university, they’re able to brush up on material for the GRE. They are more engaged than just a participant.”

It’s eye-opening for students when they show up in our office, sometimes on the verge of tears, and we are able to offer them a variety of options...Being able to offer them a portfolio of opportunities and say, ‘Here’s how you can catch up or stay on track or get ahead.’ The students are very happy with the opportunities.”

Shelley Dempsey, director of the On Your Time initiative

All of the center’s services are voluntary, Talbert says, with some students participating because they want to bring a B up to an A, focus more on time management or improve their test preparation skills.

“Students know we’re not remedial. It’s the norm on campus here,” Talbert says. “Some students hear about us from the SI leader who attends each class with students. And we encourage those SI leaders to sit next to different students and get them to come to sessions.”

Assessment of the supplemental instruction program, which places other undergraduate students in courses to lead study sessions and encourage students, shows students who regularly attend the study sessions see their grades improve a half to a full letter grade.

Also, through a new initiative using Pathfinder, the university’s advisement software, the center targets specific courses and asks faculty to provide feedback and progress reports on students who are at risk of not being successful in the class.

“If so, we will follow up with the student to get them into our office, to see what’s going on, to see if they need help with study skills. They’ll get a phone call and we’ll schedule an appointment, but it’s still voluntary,” she says.

The program was started as a pilot in the business school, and has been redesigned and offered in business, math and engineering classes. This year, the center is monitoring 50 separate courses.

“We want to retain our students, we want them to graduate and give back to the community,” she says. “Everything we do is directly related to curriculum. Everything is retention, retention, retention.”

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