The University continues to make promising strides in the area of student success, though much work still remains, according to President Marc Johnson, who participated along with Provost Kevin Carman and Vice President of Student Services Shannon Ellis during Monday's "Campus Conversations" event in the Great Room of the Joe Crowley Student Union.
Johnson, who noted that he had visited prior to the meeting with representatives in attendance from a number of areas related to Student Services, said that the effort to help students succeed must always be campus-wide.
"We all contribute to the cornerstone goal of our University's mission, which is student success," he said.
The event, which was sponsored by the Faculty Senate and had about 50 attendees, originated from a Jan. 19, 2018 Board of Regents action that approved the Nevada System of Higher Education's "Strategic Values, Goals, Metrics and Peers." Earlier "Conversations" this year focused on research and the University's attainment of the Carnegie classification of "very high research," or R1. "Success: Increase Student Success" is goal No. 2 on NSHE's "Strategic Values, Goals, Metrics and Peers" list.
Carman noted that the University's metrics under "Student Success" continue to trend upward.
He said the University's 6-year graduation rate, which is currently at about 58 percent, is expected to rise to 60 percent by 2021. He said this is because the University's 4-year graduation rate has been on the rise for the past several years. A few years ago it was at 17 percent; today it is at 37 percent "and it is increasing rapidly, which is a leading indicator that our 6-year graduation rate is trending upward as well."
Ellis noted that the University has reached a point where it needs to look at individual groups of students more closely, particularly members of underrepresented groups. And, as well, she said, the University should look to quality and highly successful programs such as TRiO Scholars, which have traditionally seen much higher graduation and retention rates for the students from underrepresented groups who participate.
"We're at the stage now as an institution where we need to break the numbers down and find out what the students' narrative is," Ellis said.
When asked about how well the University is preparing students to enter the workforce upon graduation, particularly as their various skillsets relate to "soft skills" such as communication style and the ability to work in a team setting, Carman said the University's overall emphasis on experiential, hands-on learning in the classroom is helping.
"We've really emphasized experiential learning, and the value of internships," Carman said, noting that the University-wide initiative of teaching students to write across disciplines is also showing signs of promise. "You can never do enough of that."
Vice Provost of Extended Studies Fred Holman took the question a step further, saying that employers who wish to have well-trained students provide the University with "an opportunity for us to say, ‘Will you partner with us? Will you provide opportunities so that our students can be a part of what you're doing.' That should be a big part of the conversation."
Paul Mitchell, a longtime member of the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism faculty, said he was hopeful the University could have more conversations with students about the possibility of pursuing higher degrees once they complete their undergraduate studies.
"We need to get these kids thinking about graduate school," he said. "A lot of students simply don't understand the importance of moving to a new place to study, and the importance of experiencing different things in their education."
Added Johnson: "We have to remember, even when we get really busy, that it's important to take time to listen to the students. That's our core mission."
Jerome Maese, director of residential life, noted that the campus is facing challenges regarding student housing opportunities. For the first time since it opened in fall 2014, applications for graduate student housing at Ponderosa Village will be filled by May 1, he said. The opening of Great Basin Hall in 2018, plus the re-opening of Manzanita Hall in August, should help ease some of the growing pains that will be felt, he said.
Still, Maese said, "I'm thinking about two or three years down the road when freshmen numbers start to go up again. Where are we going to be?"
Ellis said that student housing prices on campus can be controlled; it's the increasingly tight real estate/rental market in northern Nevada that can't necessarily be controlled.
"Tuition and fees and books we can cover," Ellis said, noting that that is why residential living on campus remains a solid option for students. "It's everything else that we can't cover ... It's all these extra components of living as an adult that keep growing for our students."
Carman said the real estate market in northern Nevada is also a challenge for new faculty, as well as for graduate students who arrive in the community for the first time and find high rents or very few options of lower- to mid-priced family homes.
"It's a challenge for the entire University," he said.
The University continues to move the needle in student-to-faculty ratio, as well as student-to-advisor ratio. Six years ago the student-to-faculty ratio stood at 22-1, which Carman said was one of the worst ratios in the country for a land-grant institution. Today the ratio is at 19-1 - within sight of the University's goal of 18-1. Student-advisor ratios have dropped from about 800-1 to a little over 400-1. The national average, Carman said, is between 300 and 350 to 1, and the University is working to reach that level soon.
Four more academic advisor positions will be added for the new academic year, with more advising positions to follow in the years to come, he said.
"There is no question this is a key piece of our student success," Carman said of continuing to add advising positions and lowering the overall ratio.
Monday's event was the final Campus Conversation of the academic year.