Georgia Southwestern State University is a comprehensive university serving a diverse population of students, offering a range of strong undergraduate and graduate programs in a vibrant learning environment. The University is a collegial community that values collaboration and community engagement with an emphasis on faculty, staff, and student interactions. An active student body and state-of-the-art amenities enhance the learning experience on a visually appealing campus located in historic Americus, Georgia.
GSW’s total enrollment in fall 2019 was 2950. At that time, the gender distribution of the student population was 65.7% women and 34.3% men. The ethnicity of the fall 2019 student population was 60.0% White, 25.0% Black, 6.9% Asian and Pacific Islander, 5.0% Hispanic, 2.5% Multiracial and less than 1.0% were Native American or Unknown. Approximately 37% of GSW undergraduates receive Pell Grants; 47% are First-Generation college students (no parent/guardian with bachelor degree or higher); 16% began college for the first-time as adults (25 years old or older); and 21% are age 25 or older. The majority of our undergraduates (66%) are classified as full-time (taking 12 or more hours); 30% live on campus; 53% are enrolled in one or more online classes; and 24% are enrolled exclusively in online classes. These populations are also representative of our recent graduates. Out of the undergraduates who were awarded bachelor’s degrees in FY20, 51% had received the Pell grant while enrolled at GSW, 53% were first-generation students, and 21% were 29 or older at the time of graduation.
GSW’s greatest successes over the last couple of years of Complete College Georgia and Momentum Approach work have been the increase in retention rate and enrollment. However, the gain in retention have not yet translated into a higher degree completion rate which is the ultimate measure of student success. Therefore, the steps discussed below are aimed at reducing structural obstacles to and increasing motivation towards degree completion.
To provide students with clear pathways to a degree and lessen instances in which students take the wrong class or classes in ineffective sequences, GSW implemented Storm Track degree pathways in fall 2018 for all degree programs. One-year pathways designed to lead to a choice of major were implemented for our six focus areas during that same semester. While our Storm Tracks were mapped out to take account of many variables that students encounter along a degree pathway, some important questions were not considered initially, such as on ramps for students starting in spring or summer term, on ramps for transfer students, off ramps for students wishing to change major, and how to determine and designate catapult courses in a degree program. Therefore, we are undertaking a Storm Track review during the 2020-21 academic year that will consider the factors noted above among others (see appendix p. 12). In the coming year, we want to examine the success of our focus area pathways in helping to retain students and helping those students make a purposeful choice of major by the end of their first year.
Clear degree pathways can only go so far in guiding students to complete a degree in four years. Strong student advising is necessary to help students successfully implement their Storm Tracks, so GSW called together an Advising Task Force during the 2019-20 academic year that delivered two recommendations, one that has been implemented and one that is in progress. The Task Force developed an Advising Syllabus that makes GSW’s advising mission widely available, establishes student learning outcomes for advising, and establishes expectations for the relationships between students and advisors. The syllabus aims to develop students who are active participants in the advising process and to establish productive advising relationships (see appendix p. 13). The syllabus is also aimed at normalizing student expectations of both faculty and professional advisors and their understanding of the learning and development that should be taking place as part of the advising process. The co-chairs of the Task Force are in the final stages of compiling a new GSW advising handbook that will be available by spring 2021.
GSW continues to participate in the USG Gateways to Completion initiative having redesigned MATH 1111 College Algebra as part of Cohort One, and participating in Cohort One Round Two with three courses: ENGL 1101 Composition I, POLS 1101 American Government, and SOCI 1101 Introduction to Sociology.
The Mathematics faculty completed the redesign process at the end of the 2018-19 academic year, and the Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Planning is currently working with the Math faculty to assess the continuing effectiveness of the redesign, as well as ways to translate successful strategies used in MATH 1111 to MATH 1001 Quantitative Reasoning and MATH 1401 Elementary Statistics, as well as the co-requisite courses MATH 0996, MATH 0997 and MATH 0999.
The English, Political Science, and Sociology faculty are entering the Act and Refine year of the G2C process, and have begun to share the pilot results of their redesign practices with other faculty. In each department, faculty on the course level committees are sharing their results with faculty not involved in the process. In the department of English and Modern Languages this means that practices have the potential to be implemented in other general education classes such as ENGL 1102 Composition II and 2000-level literature, but also in classes in elementary and intermediate Chinese and Spanish. Both the other departments are also interdisciplinary, so both History and Psychology faculty and their students are benefiting from work done by the Political Science and Sociology Faculty. The chairs of all three course level committees shared their overall results with faculty across campus during GSW’s Southwestern planning week, beginning a discussion of implementing redesign practices in disciplines beyond their own departments.
Beyond the sharing of G2C results, GSW’s current Faculty Development plans focus on simple interventions and practices to reinforce productive academic mindsets, including wise framing of feedback and suggested activities for first day of class that effectively send growth mindset, relevance, and social belonging messages.
In the course of reviewing our Policies on Academic Warning, Probation, and Suspension, we discovered a couple of changes that could be made to help students continue in or return to school more easily. We found that during summer term 2020 several students were suspended who had only taken one or two classes during summer term that, even if they were successfully completed, would not have been adequate to return them to Good Standing from Probation. We are currently working on a revision of the Policy on Suspension that would allow students who were registered part-time during the term after which they were suspended to appeal for a return to probation as long as they agree to register full-time during their additional probation semester. We also are moving to change one procedure related to Suspension. Since most students who are suspended will need to sit out of school for at least one semester before they will be eligible for Academic Reinstatement, the procedure has been to drop any classes that the student has registered for during the succeeding term when they are suspended. This procedure has presented a problem to the small number of students who might be eligible to return to class without sitting out on what is termed Restricted Enrollment. Therefore, we will begin keeping the prospective schedules of students who might be eligible for Restricted Enrollment until late registration date for the next term. This change will give these students a chance to apply for Restricted Enrollment without having to completely rebuild a schedule if they are successful in their application.
All first year students are now taking the Clifton Strengths assessment prior to attending new student orientation in the fall. During orientation they are presented with their assessment results and are taught how to interpret those findings. Those strengths are then discussed in small groups as students learn how to utilize their strengths to make them more successful at GSW. We also teach them how to partner with those who have different strengths to maximize everyone’s strengths for group work, studying together, or working together in a student club. This process shows students that they all have areas where they excel and that these skills can help them be more successful in the classroom as well as in extra-curricular activities. Clifton Strengths contributes to having a positive growth mindset as they know they have the skills that they need to succeed if they work hard and draw on needed resources.
There are four primary groups that set the agenda for GSW’s CCG and Momentum Approach work: The Deans’ Council, the Student Engagement and Success Leadership Team, the Complete College Georgia Steering Committee, and the President’s Administrative Council. The Dean’s Council, which includes the Provost, the deans of the four colleges, and the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, is primarily responsible for making policy and strategic decisions on academic matters, including curriculum, advising, and faculty development, and for implementing those decisions. The Student Engagement and Success Leadership Team includes the Executive Vice President for Student Engagement and Success, the Assistant Vice President for SES, and the directors of all SES departments. The SES Leadership Team makes strategic and operational decisions to support student recruitment, retention, and success as reflected in completing a degree. The Complete College Georgia Steering Committee has representatives from both Academic Affairs and Student Engagement and Success who are responsible for coordinating CCG and Momentum Approach activities across campus. The President’s Administrative Council has the ultimate decision making authority to approve and underwrite the decisions made by the other three bodies.
All four of these groups use traditional Enrollment, Retention, Progression, and Graduation data in their decision making processes. For graduation rates, we use both USG specific data and National Student Clearinghouse data. Time to Degree data, Grade Distribution data, and USG Mindset Survey data are also used. All data are disaggregated by age, gender, race/ethnicity, Pell eligibility, and First Generation status, where possible, as well as being considered in multiple data configurations, such as African American females, and first generation males.
The disaggregated data suggest that GSW is making the most progress in closing equity gaps for six-year graduation rates of Male Pell Recipients and Male Underrepresented Groups over the last several cohorts to reach the six year milestone, including the 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 cohorts. In addition, GSW’s total male population has made graduation rates gains during the same period, although they remain lower than the rates for our female population. We still have a lot of work to do, including investigating what combination of strategies led to these gains so that we can enhance what is working well.
GSW began placing students who did not make a purposeful choice of major in one of six focus areas during summer registration of first year students prior to fall semester 2018. The plan was always that these students would be empowered and encouraged to make a purposeful choice of major by the time they accumulated 30 credit hours.
Preliminary data suggest that for the 2018-19 cohort the focus areas were not as successful as we might have hoped. While these students were retained at a rate comparable to the other students in the cohort after one year, they were retained at a lower rate after the second. In addition, we found a small number of students who were retained but who have still not made a choice of major by the beginning of their third year at GSW. In the next year, we plan to examine the data on the focus area students in the 2019-20 cohort and to re-examine how we are working with these students to determine how to improve the results.
We proposed in the Momentum Approach Plan that we submitted in early 2020 to institute a defined process to verify that students are still committed to their declared major during their second, third, and fourth semesters at GSW. Since student advising shifts from being primarily provided by professional advisors in the Office of First Year Experience to being provided primarily by faculty advisors during the third and fourth semesters on campus, this period a critical milestone in student progression. Instituting such a defined and intentional process should help us identify students who need to consider a change of major as early as possible thus improving progression, time to degree, and graduation rates.
The COVID-19 pandemic shifted our institutional focus before this initiative could make much progress. The current plan is to work out a process during the 2020-21 academic year to have it in place for fall 2021. The plan will then be incorporated into our advising handbook and be part of advisor training during the next academic year.
As part of the focus on job prospects proposed in the 2020 Momentum Plan, the Office of First-Year Experience in collaboration with the academic departments hosted a Majors and Minors Fair for students to learn about the majors, minors, certificate programs, and job opportunities in the various academic areas. Participant logs are being used as a means to benchmark engagement and future attendance goals.
The 2019-20 fair was an optional program for academic departments and participants. In order for the program to expand, attendance will need to be built into course credit or activity recognition. COVID-19 measures requires the university to utilize a virtual venue, a challenge to engagement that suppressed the participation rate in the fall 2020 semester.
The Office of First-Year Experience has conducted check-in meetings with first year students during the second month of the semester since fall 2018. The meetings focus on establishing personal connection with students while intentionally addressing transition topics ranging from academics to social integration. The percentage of first year students completing the check-in meetings and retention rates are the data that will indicate progress on this activity. The goal of 100% student participation in these meetings is a challenge that we are working to meet. During fall term 2020, for instance, individual members of the Office of First Year Experience staff collaborated with UNIV 1000 instructors to encourage students to schedule and attend their check-in meetings.
All Storm Tracks were enhanced with Milestones related to career preparation activities prior to the 2019-20 academic year. All degree programs were tasked to identify three to five Catapult courses to be added to pathways, as well as developing strategies to adapt Storm Tracks for transfer students, students beginning programs in spring and summer terms, and students entering with significant amounts of dual enrollment credit.
The number of Storm Tracks that have incorporated the enhancements described above will be an interim measure of success, and to that extent we anticipate being successful. The ultimate measures of success will be improved time to degree rates in the aggregate and disaggregated by program and student characteristics. There should also be a positive effect on graduation rates beginning with the 2019-20 cohort of first-time full-time undergraduates.
We found that operationalizing the Catapult classes as part of a Storm Track or reviewing the efficacy of degree pathways were not necessarily straightforward activities, and therefore, we may not have given sufficient guidance on how to go about these activities. We did provide access to the Catapult course databases, for instance, and demonstrated how they could be used in development sessions for program coordinators, but did not give much guidance on how to incorporate any insights gained into a degree pathway document. In addition, we have not really begun to assess the efficacy of our Storm Tracks as currently articulated. We are planning to address these issues in several ways. For instance, we have devised a Storm Track Review Checklist that will be used by program coordinators to examine their pathways during fall term 2020 (see appendix p. 12). In early September 2020, all program coordinators were tasked with using the checklist to review and revise the Storm Tracks for their programs.
This initiative got partially lost in the scramble to adapt to moving all courses to online delivery and the scattering of faculty to working from home. The new timeline for completion of this initiative is to be done with the review phase during fall term 2020 and then be ready to deploy fully enhanced Storm Tracks during new student registration for fall term 2021.
A new entry program, called University College, was created in summer 2020 and implemented fall semester 2020. GSW hired a program director and two faculty members to advance the University College mission. This program is designed to support first-year students who do not yet meet admissions standards but demonstrate potential. University College is a two-semester program focused on providing at-risk students with foundational skills for success through specifically-designed college success courses, small class sizes with designated University College instructors, student accountability groups, individual planning meetings with advisors and counselors, and intentional opportunities for extra-curricular participation. Initial program enrollment and retention numbers will establish a benchmark for recruitment and retention. The University College program participants require a high level of guidance in order to persist. This requires personnel to strategically engage students through creative methods that meets individual needs. The University College personnel are working with the Office of First Year Experience to adapt their practices and procedures to address student needs and program objectives of the UC program. As a result of COVID-19, face-to-face meetings have been limited and virtual interactions risk causing program participant disconnect.
While we continue to facilitate the development of a productive academic mindset in all students, we proposed in our February 2020 Momentum Approach Plan to begin finding ways of facilitating a productive academic mindset in the faculty. The approach we have taken to this work is to create faculty development opportunities intended to help faculty see the aspects of Mindset GPS from a student perspective. Faculty developing an understanding of productive academic mindset from the student perspective should lead to higher grades in classes and improved performance on learning outcome assessments, especially for lower-level general education classes.
We began this work with a faculty development session during Southwestern Week planning activities on motivation and mindset entitled Sharing the Passion. The workshop was conducted by two members of the GSW CCG Steering Committee, Dr. Mark Grimes and Dr. Judy Orton Grissett. The session included a brief introduction to productive academic mindset as applied to both students and faculty and also shared significant results of the USG Mindset Survey about student motivations. In particular it was pointed out that students want to have something substantive to say about what’s going on in the world, to make a positive contribution to the world, and to gain knowledge and skills that will lead to a fulfilling and enjoyable career. Simple strategies for developing and reinforcing a productive academic mindset were shared, such as wise framing of messages to students and activities for the first day of class to establish a positive mindset for students. Suggestions for the first day of class included making the case for the relevance of the knowledge and skills that will be acquired in the class to making a positive contribution in the world and having a fulfilling and enjoyable career, as well as activities that give the students some insight into the passion of the instructor for his or her discipline and that begin the process of students getting to know each other and become a group of collaborative learners with the instructor.
It is eerie how some content from this faculty development approach at GSW echoed the content of the mini- and short mindset courses recently piloted by the USG, especially the correspondence between first day tone setting activities recommended at GSW and the content of the USG Mindset Short course. In the coming year we will continue the work of developing faculty ability to facilitate the development of productive academic mindsets in students and in themselves, and we will explore how we can take advantage of resources developed by Motivate Lab for the USG to achieve this purpose.
We attribute our gains in retention partially to having professional advisors in the Office of First-Year Experience check in with all first-year students within the first six to eight weeks of the fall semester to see how their transition to college is going. This practice has helped identify students in need of special attention and generally reinforced that GSW faculty and staff care about student success. Another successful strategy we have used is the redesign of UNIV 1000 the GSW Experience, our first-year experience class, to include significant instruction in metacognition and developing a productive academic mindset. The continuing challenges will be to assess the effectiveness of specific aspects of the course redesign and to seed the elements of the course throughout the general education and major curricula.
We attribute our relatively stagnant completion and graduation rates partially to advising that is not universally effective. We believe that this is partially a result of students and faculty not understanding or externalizing the goals and expectations for the advising relationship. The Advising Task Force that met during the 2019-20 academic year is the first step in improving our advising. As noted above, the Advising Syllabus drafted by the task force is meant to establish the learning outcomes of advising and the expectations for the advising relationship. In addition to finishing and distributing a new and improved Advising Handbook, we intend to offer advisor development along the same lines as faculty development to infuse productive academic mindsets for both students and faculty into the advising process.
Our completion activities over the last year have remained relatively stable, despite the need to make significant changes in course delivery. The primary lesson that can be taken away from the changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic is that drastic overhauling of courses in a short space of time is neither desirable nor necessary. It is far better to implement small incremental changes to instructional methods that are compassable and that can be implemented more widely across courses and programs when their efficacy is demonstrated. This approach helped smooth the process of moving to fully online classes in March 2020 and was complemented by eCampus and USG training that facilitated a similar compassable approach to shifting course delivery methods.
GSW Storm Days, new student registration days, were revamped in summer 2019 by adding additional days and decreasing the number of participants at each session. The focus was to maximize use of GSW’s space and increase personalized experience for students and families. Special personalized touches were added to the experience such as ID card photo booth to memorialize the moment, “GSW Bound” yard signs for families, and personal interactions with President Weaver and his wife.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced GSW to revamp the 2019 Storm Day approach for summer 2020. Our commitment to a personalize experience and safety influenced us to expand from 7 Storm Days to 48 Storm Day sessions over a period of 24 days. This change enabled GSW to keep to our priorities of providing students with face-to-face advisement and registration while maintaining Covid-19 precautions by limiting the number of participants to a level that allowed for effective physical distancing.
For students who did not feel comfortable coming to campus during the pandemic, virtual advisement and registration appointments were made available. The response to face-to-face sessions was well-received and reflected by very positive evaluations. GSW had record freshmen enrollment for fall 2020.
As part of developing a comprehensive financial literacy program targeting residential students, first-years, and seniors, all first-year students attended a Money Management session during First-Year Orientation. The session included topics related to budgeting, saving, credit cards, and financial aid. The Office of First-Year Experience followed up a few weeks later with a workshop for students titled Money Saving Tips helping students to create a budget along with a discussion of student loans and scholarships. Financial literacy has also been included in the UNIV 1000 curriculum for all first-year students. The course includes three lessons related to financial literacy, one on financial aid including loans and grants, one on budgeting, and one on debt. The Office of Financial Aid has implemented “Know More Borrow Less” practices and added a series of short videos to their website providing counseling on financial aid. GSW needs to establish comprehensive learning objectives for this program to help tie the individual elements together.
One way GSW has attempted to involve new students on campus as quickly as possible is a new extended orientation program called Thunder Camp. The program was designed to assist incoming freshmen with their transition into the University. The three-day, two-night experience established an opportunity for students to engage and connect with their peers and campus leaders. Thunder Camp provided a foundation for a successful college experience by immersing students in community-building, developing a greater sense of self-awareness, and building a connection to the college.
The Office of Residential and Campus Life incorporated weekly programming in the residence halls and across campus for students to be engaged on campus. They also hosted a successful Welcome Week of activities for students and hosted Blue and Gold Week which included campus festivities throughout the week focusing on school spirit and student engagement. Culminating Blue and Gold Week, the Office of First-Year Experience hosted Family Weekend allowing parents and family members the opportunity to experience the campus and explore the community with their students.
The Office of First-Year Experience continues to offer regular workshops and events designed to foster academic and campus engagement in all students. These workshops provide students opportunities to learn how they can be successful academically and become more engaged on campus. Early data show that first-year students in fall 2020 are attending programs in higher numbers as compared to previous years.
New student orientation is a four-day program designed to establish productive academic mindset with first year students. The fall 2019 New Student Orientation was delivered in a new format. The conference style program integrated upper-class student mentors (Storm Spotters) with professional staff members and faculty to deliver programs for new students to learn about academic and community expectations. The freshmen class was organized by University 1000 class sections, each of which moved through the program content together. Large scale events engaging the entire freshmen class focused on social integration. Medium and small group gatherings focused on transition topics and academic integration.
Modifications were made for the 2020 New Student Orientation to meet COVID-19 gathering regulations and to address lessons learned from 2019. The 2019 program created freshmen class cohesion and UNIV 1000 faculty observed improved student engagement in course topics the first week of the semester.
The Complete College Georgia Steering Committee are primarily responsible for implementing, monitoring, and evaluating GSW’s Student Success and Completion Strategies.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
Executive Vice President of Student Engagement and Success
Director, Office of First Year Experience
Associate Professor of Psychology and Director, Experiential Learning
Associate Professor of Business
Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Director, Institutional Effectiveness and Planning
However, whatever success GSW has had implementing its Student Success and Completion Strategies has been the result of work carried out by numerous individuals across campus. The groups listed below have been integral to GSW’s implementation of its Complete College Georgia and Momentum Approach Plans, so the Steering Committee would like to acknowledge their contributions.