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Getting students to graduation: A focus on the first year

CMU selected for national initiative to re-imagine students’ first-year experience

Contact: Heather Smith

​​Central Michigan University is one of 44 institutions nationwide selected by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities to participate in the Re-Imagining the First Year of College project. The three-year initiative focuses on transforming the first year of college to enhance students' success during their undergraduate years.

The first year of college is a critical barrier to student success and the point at which the greatest number of students discontinue college enrollment. The objective of the project is to help participating colleges and universities – and ultimately the broader AASCU membership of 420 state colleges and universities – implement changes to help more students successfully carry on and graduate, particularly among historically underserved populations.

"At CMU, student success is our No. 1 priority and something we continuously work to improve," said Michael Gealt, CMU executive vice president and provost. "This project provides us with a unique opportunity to collaborate with other universities that are facing many of the same challenges."

As part of the project, CMU will select and implement proven, innovative strategies and programs, adapting them to its unique environment and needs. The evidence-based strategies focus on four core areas to help first-year students succeed:

  • Institutional intentionality;
  • Curriculum;
  • Faculty and staff roles; and
  • Student roles.

CMU's project leadership team will participate with colleagues from around the nation through planning meetings; educational webinars; one-on-one mentoring; online tools and resources; and idea exchange sessions about successful strategies.

"CMU can implement and evaluate only a limited number of interventions to improve students' success," said Debra Poole, CMU psychology professor and coordinator for Academic Quality Initiatives. "By partnering with other public universities and sharing results, we will learn about the types of interventions that work for universities with similar characteristics — including interventions we have not attemped at CMU. It is exciting to tell students, 'We care about your success and want to bring the most innovative and successful approaches to your campus.'"

Poole is part of the diverse team of faculty, staff and students assembled to lead CMU's involvement in the program.


"We are pleased that these AASCU institutions will commit their enormous talent and knowledge to the success of this initiative, which I believe will have a profound effect on undergraduate education in the 21st century," said George Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at AASCU. "The state colleges and universities we selected represent a broad swath of the institutional landscape and exhibit strong leadership and other qualities that are conducive to effecting broad-scale and sustainable change. Together, with the engagement of all campus stakeholders – from students to academic leadership – we will strive to transform the first-year student experience and ensure student success."

CMU's continued focus on student success

Central's director of student success, Jason Bentley, said involvement in the project will continue to evolve a multi year plan focused on student success.

"Through targeted initiatives developed over the past few years, CMU is able to help more students successfully navigate life, learning and new connections that are often challenging during the first college year," Bentley said. "As a result, CMU students are progressing from the first to second year at an improved rate. Our goal is to provide best-in-class support and service and growing first to second year retention by at least 1 percent annually to attain and sustain an 80 percent first-year retention rate by 2019. This past fall, CMU achieved a 2 percent increase in that first- to second-year retention rate."  

Strategic positioning of resources and realignment of curricular pathways also continues to support efforts to improve four- and six-year degree completion rates.

Recent strategies deployed at CMU include:

  • Addition of $6 million in financial merit awards each year;
  • Creation of the Office of Student Success;
  • Implementation of the online Advising Workbench to help students, faculty and advisors to track and plan academic success; and,
  • Additional academic advising and success coaching professionals to improve the student-to-advisor ratio.

The Re-Imagining the First Year of College project is being funded by generous grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USA Funds.

About AASCU:

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities is a Washington, D.C.-based higher education association of more than 400 public colleges, universities and systems whose members share a learning- and teaching-centered culture, a historic commitment to underserved student populations, and a dedication to research and creativity that advances their regions' economic progress and cultural development.

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