Op Ed: We ALL Play A Role in Student Success

By Dr. Matt Lee, Vice Provost for Academic Programs and Support Services
Professor of Sociology

When it comes to student recruitment and retention, LSU operates in an extraordinarily competitive landscape. The emergence of for-profit institutions, the online industry, college readiness programs, and other innovations has coincided with a shift in funding for public higher education from state appropriations to tuition driven models. This change has forced students to shoulder more of the cost, thus driving them to seek value from their prospective educational home more than ever before. And notice that I say the word “home”. Higher education institutions are not a fast food restaurant or laundromat from which our students get a service. We are their home for several years. We become their proxy family, nurturing them, cultivating independence, and preparing them to assume leadership roles in business and industry, government and the non-profit sector. In order to fulfill this function we must first get them here.

In a climate where the competition is fierce we should be proud of how well we perform. For the second time since 2004 our total enrollment has edged past 30,000 students. According to LSU’s 2015 Fall Facts, 31,527 students study at LSU, an increase of 3.5% over the prior year. This is great news. As a world-class public research university we are able to attract a very strong and increasingly diverse student body to study under the highest caliber faculty in research facilities that are only found among top tier research universities – the elite of the American higher education system and, quite frankly, the envy of the rest of the world.

As we continue to double down on our recruitment efforts to attract the best and brightest, we must remain vigilant about retaining these students and keeping on track to achieve their longer-term goals. Relative to the full spectrum of higher education institutions, we again perform quite admirably, with a 1st to 2nd year retention rate of roughly 85%. This success is undergirded by a wide spectrum of programs designed to provide transitional support in terms of early orientation and acclimation for students, programs to enhance study skills, supplemental instructional support, and the like. On the student side, recent efforts have gone so far as to contact all first and second year students who have either not registered for classes or have been determined to have a high probability of not returning. Our very own Dr. Ed Shihadeh is also currently completing a study on over 40,000 current and former LSU students that investigates which background factors most influence persistence. But, our challenge is continuing to move the needle when it is already in the high end of the range.

On the instructional side, I encourage us to think introspectively. What are we doing personally as instructors, teachers, mentors and faculty advisors to provide an experience that is at once welcoming and providing the challenges they seek and deserve? Are we assessing our pedagogical practices to ensure we are producing master adaptive learners that are prepared not for a single career but a series of careers? Do we provide problem solving and communication intensive experiences that situate them for success in a world where nearly all information flows in real-time and comes at them all the time? Do we foster community, a civic orientation, entrepreneurship and cultural competence in a global environment where geographic and other barriers are rapidly dissipating? Are we innovative in how we do this while remaining true to the core tenets of the classical liberal arts education? If we build our central institutional orientation around these foundational building blocks for success, I submit that today’s consumer savvy students will discern this value and we will retain them at an even greater rates.

It is easy to fall into the trap of relying on numbers to measure success and guide our path forward, but as an institution, quality needs to be our mantra. Continuing to authentically challenge ourselves to deliver the highest quality education that meets the needs of contemporary students is not a comfortable task, but it is an essential ingredient in the complex calculus that goes into recruiting, retaining, and releasing from our charge the next generation of leaders.