Some stats to start: Michigan State University sits on 5,192 acres. Its undergraduate population is near 40,000. Spartan Stadium draws 75,000 to football games. It is a big deal.
It is a big school. And Michigan State’s size amplifies its impact and stature in many positive ways, but it can also be a shock for many students. The sheer volume can overwhelm eager freshmen, leaving them feeling adrift. Retention numbers drop as first-year students struggle to find a groove. Especially at risk of feeling left out: those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
These were the primary concerns that seeded Michigan State’s pioneering ‘Neighborhoods’ program, which aims to transform the big-college experience into something more attentive and nurturing. Academic improvement and shrinking opportunity gaps will follow, the thinking goes. And early analysis of the program is indicating that this thinking is right.
Launched in 2010, the program was the first piece of the university’s Student Success Initiative, which targets low-income and first-generation students in particular. The program relocates health, academic, and other resources in residential halls, effectively converting Michigan State dorms into “Engagement Centers,” as the nomenclature has it, and bringing essential student services cheek-by-jowl to each dorm room’s doorstep. Everything from fitness classes to intercultural groups, flu shots, and entrepreneurial incubators, are offered in the areas where students sleep and eat. The result, according to Sekhar Chivukula, associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies, has been an enhanced “sense of community, identity, and belonging.”
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- Welcome to the College Neighborhood
The social consequences of this restructuring have been telling, as have been the academic results. An analysis of records from the years 2015 and 2016 showed that low-income and first-generation students at Michigan State are now 20 percent less likely to be on academic probation after their first semester. That’s a potentially life-changing difference for approximately 200 freshmen, and it’s been achieved in only five years.
Proximity to academic advisors and tutoring is so important. MSU president Lou Anna Simon said recently in an interview on the Gates Foundation’s “To A Degree” podcast that when you, a student, might “put on your slippers and go down and improve your math skills” is a wonderful and important thing. As a senior kinesiology major explained to the publication MSU Today, the convenience factor leaves students with “no excuse” when it comes to seeking help on coursework—even during frigid Upper Midwest winters. So: welcoming help, and no excuses.
Faculty, staff—everyone—are now expected to be aware of social-justice issues that can, if ignored, cause tension between students of different backgrounds and become roadblocks to success
The faculty has come to feel an increased sense of shared stakes since the whole Engagement Centers—or Neighborhoods—approach was adopted. For several years, the university has been encouraging an “early warning system” that asked professors to keep an eye on students who were at risk of slipping academically. That continues, but, says Chivukula, “With the new focus on the Neighborhoods, a much greater fraction of our faculty is using it.”
The university’s Student Success Initiative aims to boost graduation rates from 77 percent to 82 percent by 2020. Part of this push—think of it as life in the Neighborhood—is a strong focus on student affairs. One example: Faculty, staff—everyone—are now expected to be aware of social-justice issues that can, if ignored, cause tension between students of different backgrounds and become roadblocks to success. The program aims to promote respect, regardless of personal views on these issues—and this thinking clearly is not exclusive to Michigan State.
“There’s incredible research out there now on how important it is to have a sense of belonging,” says Kathy Collins, vice president for student affairs at the University of Rhode Island. Collins can speak for her new experience and her last one: Prior to taking on her current role, Collins was the executive director of residence education and housing services at Michigan State, where she helped Neighborhoods evolve out of its pilot phase. “We know how critically important the first six weeks of a student’s college experience are. It’s through that housing experience that we’re dealing with a student’s entry to the institution. And you spend a lot of time in housing—a lot of times that’s where friendship groups are formed.”
Collins admits that “management fads” come and go. But she maintains that Neighborhoods isn’t one of them. The quantitative research is there, she says. She points to the fact that at MSU, campus bus drivers now announce the old Residence Halls as Neighborhoods, and stresses the importance of such a seemingly small initiative. “That’s a cultural change,” she says.
With “living learning communities” now part of their lexicon, administrators across the country are working to reshape student life at larger public universities like Michigan State into the intimate, community-oriented experience associated with Ivy League schools and smaller liberal-arts colleges. And Collins is working away at URI, which is neither super-big nor small. She feels a neighborhood is a good place to live, or to go to school.
Michigan State was uniquely positioned to implement a program like Neighborhoods. It is a land-grant university—the nation’s first, in fact, founded as such in 1855—and therefore an emphasis on access and service is in its DNA. Its leafy suburban campus has no building shortage, thanks to a massive expansion program in the early 1960s. The school also has one of largest college housing systems in the nation. All first-year students are required to live on campus, and 60 percent of second-year students do so as well. As a result, stationing health, advisory, student-affairs, and residential-services personnel in residential areas is more likely to be effective than it would be at a school where younger students are more dispersed. All of this serves to make the Neighborhoods effort possible without a costly physical overhaul: Neighborhoods can comfortably fit in, both physically and psychically, anywhere on campus.
Having said that about MSU, there is a larger point, per Collins, which is: The Neighborhoods model is general enough to be adapted elsewhere. The universities of Western Michigan and Central Michigan have implemented similar programs, Collins notes, and even while her current employer, URI, conducts a site feasibility study for a new student union, she is examining how academic and career services could fit into the building. Her thought processes are, she says, “a direct result of my time at Michigan State.”
The Neighborhoods program was a spur to MSU’s recent entry into the University Innovation Alliance, a 11-school consortium devoted to improving the fates of first-generation and low-income college students. MSU’s progress has already drawn notice within the organization. “Everyone I’ve spoken with in the Alliance has remarked that the Neighborhoods model is interesting,” Chivukula says. “Whether they call it ‘a neighborhood’ or not, this idea of community support is one that a lot of colleges are looking at. He adds: “It’s easy to say one size fits all and create a single program that can serve 40,000 students. That may fit the ‘average student.’ But no student is average. So how do we become more skilled, more deft? How do we change our culture to provide a different level of support?” Michigan State’s innovative, gap-closing adaptations—basically making life intimate for young adults entering a large, strange new world—are providing promising answers to these questions.
Says Collins: “It’s not enough anymore to just bring in a student and say, ‘Welcome.’” As for her efforts, in a nation with a 50 percent national college dropout rate: “We did a disruption.” Her aim for higher education has become clear to her, and it is now “not just about access, but about access and success—persistence and retention, toward graduation.” Education has a starting point, and though we all continue learning throughout our lives, something of a finish line.