By Katharine Webster
UMass Lowell’s rapid growth over the past decade is a testament to the university’s ability to improve its academic offerings, real-world opportunities and student life. This fall, enrollment topped 18,000 students for the first time.
But university administrators aren’t resting on their laurels. They’re more focused than ever on helping students maximize their academic, social and financial success.
The Centers for Learning and Academic Supports Services (CLASS) have overseen the development of new study skills “boot camps” over winter break for students who struggle during their first semester of college, and they’ve expanded their “Strategies for Success” workshops, held in August for incoming first-year students. They’ve also worked on an early academic warning system that lets faculty know when a student is struggling.
Another universitywide system lets administrators know when students aren’t registering for their next semester and why, so they can offer assistance with financial holds or other concerns.
Help Increases Retention
These efforts, which span every department on campus, are already paying off in increased retention and graduation rates. Early numbers indicate that a record 87 percent of last year’s freshmen returned this fall as sophomores, and the six-year graduation rate has reached 60 percent. Retention rates for juniors and seniors have also climbed steadily, fueling optimism that graduation rates will improve further.
“We’ve already reached our 2020 goals for six-year graduation rates, and we’re close with student retention,” says Julie Nash, vice provost for student success. “We’ve been as successful as we have been because of our partnerships across the campus.”
This fall, Nash and Kerry Donohoe, dean of academic services, introduced a new advising system for first-year and transfer students. All first-year students are now assigned two advisers: a full-time, professional adviser within their college and a faculty adviser in their major. New transfer students get a professional adviser from CLASS and a faculty adviser.
The two-part advising system will be particularly helpful for students who are tentative about their majors or come in undeclared, Nash says. About 70 percent of students change their majors at least once, and 56 percent also change colleges. Professional advisers can ease that transition – including the change to a new faculty adviser in the new major – and direct students to other support services, from help with finances to counseling.
“Students leave because of uncertainties about their career goals, academic or financial struggles and personal or family issues,” Donohoe says. “We’re addressing that with more advising services, better four-year academic planning, more academic support through the Strategies for Success workshops and tutoring – and by being proactive.”
On Target for Four Years
An important new tool for advisers and students is a four-year planner inside the Student Information Services (SIS) app. Beginning this summer at orientation, first-year students used it to map out the courses they need to take to graduate on time by meeting all the requirements for their majors, the core curriculum and the essential learning outcomes. Professional and faculty advisers can access the planner instantly when meeting with students.
Provost Michael Vayda says that when most students are using the course planner, the data it generates will help administrators plan better to meet the demand for key courses and faculty.
The new initiatives augment a host of other programs, including expanded housing, academic and experiential learning opportunities, that are designed to boost student success.
Residence Life has greatly expanded its living-learning communities (LLCs), including adding a new one this fall that’s part of a pilot program to offer extra academic help, career guidance and social opportunities for first-year students seeking more support.
River Hawk Scholars Academy
The River Hawk Scholars Academy opened this fall with 95 students, 15 of whom are living in the River Hawk Scholars Academy LLC in Fox Hall. In future years, Nash, Donohoe and the faculty director, English lecturer Matthew Hurwitz, plan to enroll 200 first-year students in the academy and 30 in the LLC.
“We invited students to join if they wanted more help navigating the university or fitting into the university culture for reasons including that they’re the first in their families to go to college,” Hurwitz said. “We told students, ‘Here’s something we can do to help you have a really successful and fun first year.’”
Students who join the River Hawk Scholars Academy can take advantage of special career exploration and study skills workshops, tutoring, a dedicated Strategies for Success workshop hosted by CLASS in August and monthly social events. They have their own professional adviser, and they also enjoy some of the same perks as students in the Honors College, including early registration for classes.
The Honors College has also invited River Hawk Scholars Academy students to share in some of its events, including the annual free skate at the Tsongas Center and a community service reading event with kindergartners at the Bartlett School next month. They’re also invited to Honors Dean Jim Canning’s personal favorite: the six-hour quiet study time, held at least once a semester in the Honors College in O’Leary Library. It's a study marathon with food provided.
Another initiative being piloted this fall is a comprehensive financial wellness program that will include peer-to-peer advising. That’s being headed up by Joyce McLaughlin, associate dean of enrollment and financial aid.