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A Conversation on Student Success at MSU with Associate Provost and Dean Mark Largent

Russ White
Mark Largent

Spartans Athletic Director Bill Beekman welcomes Mark Largent to this edition of MSU Today. Largent is the associate provost for undergraduate education, dean of undergraduate studies, and a professor in the Department of History at Michigan State University.

“You can tell two things from the length of my title,“ says Largent. “The associate provost and dean of undergraduate education's responsibility is to coordinate the undergraduate experience, especially in and around the classroom, across the 169 majors in our 17 different degree granting colleges. My job is, from the central unit, like the federal government, to help coordinate all the activities that go on across the college campus related to undergraduate education and to create a more coherent and seamless experience for our students because 70 percent of them change their majors from the time they start to the time they finish. About half of them change them more than once.

“That's not really a problem unless they're doing it into their third and fourth years. And in fact, as soon as they change their majors in their first and second years, they tend to have really good outcomes. They tend to persist and graduate as they're exploring and finding their way and discovering their purposes and passions. And then we coordinate with all the other things that happen that are different from going to class versus going to college. Going to college consists of a lot more than going to class. Students only spend about 15 percent of their time in class. The other 85 percent of their waking hours are spent in college.

“All of the co-curricular and extracurricular things and everything that happens in the residence halls and everything that's part of the overall student experience falls to my office to help coordinate, make sense of, and ensure that our students are given the best opportunity to learn, thrive, and graduate.”

Beekman asks Largent how MSU defines student success.

“That 15 percent does understate the academic and curricular investments that students have to make in their time. For every hour that a student spends in class, the expectation is that they spend two to three hours preparing for class or working on assignments and projects. So you're really looking at one hour of class time leading to three or four hours overall. And so suddenly that 15 percent is now closer to 60 percent of their time spent on academic pursuits. And then the rest of their time is spent working jobs and participating in sports and co-curricular and extracurricular activities. So that overall suite of things is a really critical part of what we think of when we talk about student success.

“The old definition of student success was that a student was successful as measured by the things that go on their transcript. So student success was just a student getting good grades. It was simply that. In the 21st century, both professionally and colloquially, when we talk about student success, we're actually talking about the ability of an institution to support the students that it matriculates so they can learn, thrive, and graduate. Student success in the 20th century was really getting good grades. Student success in the 21st century is a measure of the institution and whether your institution is designed to support your students. And so when we look at the persistence and graduation rates across the country, on average, half of the students that start college will not finish. It's an astoundingly low rate. Fifty percent of the students who start working on a college degree never finish it. But then when you go to a place like the Ivy League, approximately 95 to 96 percent of the students that start finish.

“When we started this effort, we were at about 77 percent of our students. We were in the top half of the Big Ten. Seventy seven percent of our students who started here finished at Michigan State. About another 10 percent started at Michigan State and finished someplace else. And sometimes that was because they decided that their purposes and their passions were in one of the really few areas in which Michigan State didn't have a major. So for example if you wanted to get a degree in aeronautics and become a pilot, we don't happen to have that program. So you'd have to go to a place like Western in order to do that. Sometimes they would want to pursue a degree that we have limited spots for. So for example in nursing we typically have about 500 students a year who start in our nursing degree, but we only have about 175 slots because of clinical placements. So those students will go someplace else.

“So we were looking at about 87 percent of our students who would start at Michigan State and then finish here or someplace else. And we said we can do even better than that. And so we began a very concerted effort to redesign all different aspects of the university. Advising, counseling, curricular pathways, the ways in which we supported students with residential education and what's happening in the dorms. The ways in which we help students with career advice and career counseling, not when they're in their junior year or their senior year, but when they are going through new student orientation. We push it all the way back so they can start thinking about the alignment between what they're learning and what they ultimately want to do with that degree.

“What has happened over the last seven years is every single year, our persistence and graduation rate has gone up. We went up from 77 to 78, 79, and 80 percent. Last year we finished at 81.3 percent. That constant push isn't about changing who we're admitting; we are admitting the same students. We’re actually designing the institution better to serve the students’ needs. And so when we talk about student success, it's a measure of the institution, not a measure of individuals sort of making it through their classes. The other thing that we've learned in this process is that grades are actually a pretty poor predictor of student success. It turns out that their grades don't tell us very much about whether they're going to graduate.

“In fact, the students who have the highest graduation rates don't have the highest grades; they're in the second tier of grades. They tend to be more resilient. They tend to be more adventurous and they do quite well in terms of retention and graduation rates. It turns out that to be successful as a student, you need to do a lot more than just get good grades. So to be a student success institution, we need to do a lot more than just make sure students get good grades. We have to support every aspect of them. We have to support their mental and physical health, their financial wellbeing, and every single thing that goes into a student's sense of belonging to the institution.

“A lot of the student success work that we've done has focused on things like basic needs. Helping students feel more confident that they know where their next meal is coming from and how they're paying rent next month, making sure that students have access to physical and mental health facilities as they need them, and increasing access to physical fitness activities on campus, which is a really big push for us right now. So combined, all these things are redesigning the university to make it a student success institution. And what we've found is that if a student starts their junior year, 19 out of 20 of them graduate. Juniors have almost a 95 percent graduation rate at Michigan State University. So our real focus right now is really looking at what happens in those first two years and designing that experience so that the students are very well taken care of and that they make it to their third year. And if they do, they're golden. They graduate.”

Largent talks about the pandemic’s impact on MSU and its operations and about the university’s plans for a more traditional campus experience this fall. And he describes his career path to MSU and what attracted him to the banks of the Red Cedar.

MSU Today airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870 and streams at WKAR.org. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.

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