“Professor, I cannot thank you enough for this. You gave me hope! I’ll do my best!” recently emailed Miguel, an FIU first-year student, adding, “[T]his has relieved a great deal of stress.” His professor had written to those who hadn’t submitted a major assignment to ask what happened and offer an opportunity to complete it. Meanwhile, Faculty Senate leaders devised a “Faculty Innovations for Student Success Showcase,” so they can share teaching innovations and results. And 100% of the 32 surveyed faculty left New Faculty Orientation feeling motivated toward and committed to student success. How did we get here, the elusive place where faculty at a Carnegie RI, highest research university recognize their role, and specifically, that of effective teaching in student success? In 2011, we launched a comprehensive, university-wide system of innovations with impressive results: The six-year graduation rate for First-Time-in-College students increased by 15 points in the first four years! Core elements include helping students identify a major promptly, providing clear paths to on-time graduation, removing barriers, and adding supports. We moved to a professional-advisor model, adding 74 advisor lines, considerably lowering the student to advisor ratio. And we provided students with several electronic tools; most notably the My_eAdvisor Student Dashboard, a tracking tool that allows students and advisors to monitor academic progress.
Next, we entered uncharted territory in most student success efforts: the classroom. Poorly performing gateway courses obstruct students’ path to graduation, so our APLU-USU-funded project has focused on 17 gateway courses—from lower-division math and writing, to General Chemistry. Students are passing these courses at significantly higher rates: up to 40% increases, dropping courses at much lower rates, and often learning a great deal more!
When working with faculty, it has been invaluable to 1) focus on both increased learning and passing rates, and 2) convey our respect for their expertise and dedication at every step, including awarding stipends for the time and effort substantive course redesign requires. We also recognized our own role in course underperformance, acknowledging that our over-reliance on adjunct faculty made course improvement all-but impossible. In response, we hired full-time instructors and allocated funds to support gateway faculty, while also recruiting 9 discipline-based educational researchers and building active learning classrooms.
For capacity building, we added leadership positions in advising, faculty development, and transfer services, ensuring a smooth pathway for students. We’ve also hired a Student Success Manager who oversees our new College Life Coaches, complementing the work of advisors. Our undergraduate Learning Assistant program is another signature student success initiative, now the largest LA program in the country, employing 320 students, and supporting another 13,000 in Fall 2016 alone! All the while, we proudly embody what scholars call “positive restlessness”: a demonstrable dissatisfaction with the status quo, willingness to be self-critical, and eagerness to exceed all expectations.
What lies ahead? A Think 30, Finish in 4 campaign to encourage students to take 30+ credits each year, given that there is a 34% point gap in the 4-year graduation rate between students who have accumulated fewer than vs. more than 30 credits by the end of their first year at FIU. A dynamic major map tool, so students can better plan future semesters, make adjustments when they’ve gotten off track, and be reminded of their path to graduation. Plus, additional active learning classrooms and enhanced systems for evaluating, supporting, and incentivizing excellence in teaching.
As Alexander Astin highlights in his recent book Are You Smart Enough?, we tend to equate institutional excellence with inputs. At FIU, we challenge this notion, striving for excellence that transcends degree completion, comprised of transformative learning experiences that empower graduates to lead engaged, purposeful lives.
In addition to teaching in the public schools, Dr. Bejar has served as an Academic Policy Analyst for the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. Dr. Bejar’s research includes contributions to an encyclopedia on women in higher education, and as Principal Investigator for a funded grant studying minority-serving institutions-models of success.
She received a PhD in Higher Education Administration from Boston College, an MS in International and Intercultural Development Education from FIU, and a BA in Psychology and Elementary Education from the University of Miami.
She is a member of the board of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, serves on the Florida Board of Governors Council of Academic Vice Presidents Work Group on Program Coordination and is an advisory board member to Excelencia in Education, an organization that aims to accelerate higher education success for Hispanics.