Student success at MSU is the opportunity for a student to develop their purpose and passion in life

Jun 4, 2019

Mark Largent is interim associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of undergraduate studies at Michigan State University. He's also a professor in MSU's prestigious and renowned James Madison College. A primary focus of his is working to improve student success at MSU. 


“Student success is the opportunity for a student to develop their purpose and passion in life,” says Largent. “There's a notion that a university provides an opportunity for a student to explore, and the difference between a university that really focuses on undergraduate student success and one that doesn't is the idea that students aren't left to wander. They are given an opportunity in a structured way to explore their purposes and their passions. And purposes and passions are not things that you discover like they're laying out on the sidewalk and you trip over them on your way into class. They're things that have to be conscientiously cultivated.

“We aren't really interested in a situation in which a student shows up here, pays us money, and we hand them a diploma. Really what we want to do is provide a launching pad for people to move into careers or to move into public service or to move into opportunities that allow them to come into own their lives and their futures. It's important at the individual level. But as a land-grant institution and as a public university, it also means that when you have thousands of students a year coming to MSU and thousands and thousands of students graduating every year, you're building a foundation for the state and for the nation and for the world. We see our responsibility to individuals as part of our broader responsibility to society generally.”

Largent talks about the challenges to success that some students face and about some of the ways MSU goes about helping students succeed – like the neighborhoods and learning analytics and innovative academic advising.

“One word that's used professionally is intrusive advising. The idea is you want to go to students and help them to understand that there are opportunities for support. Many students, for a variety of different reasons, choose not to access support services. And what we want to make sure that we do is we get the students and say, ‘It seems to me like you could use some help here,’ and not just hang out a shingle and wait for people to show up, but to actually go to the students who the research shows us would benefit from different kinds of support.

“It’s getting to students and helping them to understand that we have a vested interest in helping them be successful.”

And Largent describes the important role that MSU’s new flat rate tuition will play in student success. He explains why it’s important for students to take 15 credits per semester. And he talks about the success the initiative has shown so far.

Largent says student success initiatives at MSU are all about “reducing opportunity gaps” and that there is no reduction in academic rigor taking place in order to help students succeed. He explains how just the opposite is occurring and provides an example in how MSU approaches the math curriculum.

At MSU “it’s not what we teach the students, it’s what they learn,” and he says MSU wants to be known for who it graduates, not who it rejects in the admissions process.

“It isn't really about what we do and who we are as much as it is what students experience. My predecessor introduced me to this phrase, ‘It's not what we teach, it's what they learn,’ and that shifts the lens from being about us to being about the students. It's really part of the idea that, as a student-focused institution, it is our job to align MSU with their needs.”

Largent explains how a declining demographic of college-aged students presents a challenge for higher education.

“We've always seen more and more 18-year-olds graduating from high school and looking for access to higher education. But we see some interesting demographic trends where essentially all of the states above the Mason Dixon line are seeing decreasing numbers of high school graduates. That is, the students who are available for colleges and universities to recruit in the north especially are decreasing, and Michigan is most certainly experiencing that as well. The numbers of high school graduates are declining every year from Michigan, so it means that we need to start thinking about where else in the United States and where else in the world we may want to recruit students to come to Michigan State University.

“What I really like about this is it creates a tremendous opportunity for us. The opportunity is to help students who, in the past, may not have had access to higher education, or we may not have sought them out in the way that we are now. And so we have this great opportunity to align some of our institutional needs for recruiting students with a social justice aim. If you're speaking like a capitalist, we can expand our market into new consumer bases. Think of it from a social justice point of view, we have a capacity to offer opportunities to students in places that they'd never had that opportunity before.”

Despite this challenge, Largent says MSU is expecting another record incoming class.

“Michigan State had, last year, a record size incoming class. We had a little over 8,400 students. This coming fall, we expect another record class. Right now we're looking at probably around 8,500, maybe 8,600 students. We're well prepared for them. That's not an issue. There are plenty of seats and plenty of beds in the residence halls. But it does tell us that we're doing something right. The experience that students know is available to them when they show up here in the fall and the opportunities that the institution provides are well known among the students. And that's, I think, ultimately the greatest measure of what we're doing.

“Graduation rates are important, probation rates are important. All of these different numbers are valuable, but you have young people voting with their feet and showing that the approaches that we're taking, the opportunities that we're providing, the goals that we have for ourselves and for them are attractive to them, and we're really happy to see them.

“I want students to know that every single student we admit has the capacity to learn, thrive, and graduate. We're making a commitment to students when they make a commitment to Michigan State University that we will provide them the support and the pathways and the community for them to explore their purposes and their passion to be successful as an undergraduate student. And ultimately, we want to be known by the students that we graduate to enlarge this now more than half a million Spartan graduates worldwide and provide more access and more opportunity to more students than ever before.”

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