Often when trying to solve complex issues on an institutional level, a university will try to look for a simple solution to address all of the problems. In actuality, however, it often requires a lot of simple solutions working in tandem to produce the overall sought-after effect. Furthermore, a single answer would never be able to cover everyone as different students have different goals, beliefs, and life experiences, so a myriad of flexible solutions are required to address them all. This same flexibility is also needed when dealing with a new generation of students who have been irrevocably changed by things such as the internet and the pandemic.
Kitty Hadaway, Co-Host of The Interview, spoke to Jared Tippets, Vice President (VP) for Student Affairs at Southern Utah University (SUU) about how to increase student retention and increase engagement by meeting them on their own terms.
I’ve had the good fortune of working at several large prestigious flagship universities around the country before coming here to SUU, but the type of students and the lives that we’re changing here is so significant to me. While our students may not be as academically elite as the students I worked with at other institutions, our students are passionate about improving their futures and I love that I get to help them fulfill their dreams
I was an involved student leader in my undergraduate days and wanted to give back and change lives and mentor other students. When I reflect on my college days, I remember sitting in my apartment with my roommates and thinking about how I was having an incredible experience learning, growing, developing, and networking while some of my roommates were having a mediocre experience. They were attending the same institution and had access to the same resources, but they were just going to class, coming home, doing homework, going to work, and they weren’t loving it the way I was. That made me really consider how universities create experiences so that all students find their place and feel that sense of belonging and connection, so I’ve wanted to give that back to students and try to create that environment. And that’s what led to this career, trying to figure out how to help all students be successful.
At SUU one of our core tenets is to create a safe, equitable, inclusive, and supportive campus community. I want all students—regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, religious preference, or political ideology—to feel physically and emotionally safe and supported on campus. This isn’t always an easy task. To accomplish it, we strive from the beginning at orientation to establish this value and expectation that students can come and be their true selves but to do so in a way that’s respectful and civil. Then we have to hold each other accountable to it. We don’t expect students to agree all the time. We don’t want them to! What we want is for students to come, get exposed to new ideas, perspectives, and ways of thinking, but to also learn how to have conversations and learn from each other.
Freedom of speech is one of the foundational principles of democracy and it’s key to the experience we strive to create here. We have to be able to share our ideas and perspectives freely and engage with one another civilly. This is the place where students can learn to do that. As an example, our Center for Politics holds a weekly event called Pizza and Politics. We bring a large gathering of students together every Wednesday, and talk about controversial topics, facilitated by student leaders. Lots of times the conversations get very lively and that’s ok. We also have moderators there to help massage and navigate the conversation.
Another thing we do, any time students hold a protest or demonstration, administrators walk around with signs that read “Why is the university allowing this event to happen? Talk to me about your first amendment rights.” All these signs are meant to invite any student frustrated by the event to engage with us. Then we can educate them about the importance and value of free speech and how we are committed to protecting everyone’s first amendment rights.
I do a fair amount of consulting for universities around the USA, helping them think about how to improve their retention rates, graduation rates, and overall student success efforts. What we often find is that schools are looking for a silver bullet; the one thing that will really move the needle. However, the reality is, it’s not just one thing. It takes hundreds of small things. So we wrote this book which focuses on broad categories that institutions should think about. ASCEND is an acronym that stands for Affordability, Support, Culture, Engagement, Nudges (nudging students along their path, helping them understand how to achieve their goals), and Data. Ultimately, we believe if institutions focus on those broad categories, they can make some good progress.
When it comes to engagement, it’s understanding that Gen-Z students engage with schools very differently than millennials and Gen-Xers did. They’re much more introverted and prone to isolation, particularly post-COVID. Universities have historically put on large events catered to the more extroverted students, such as parties that often include loud music, large groups of students, etc. We still put on these big events to create excitement and life at the institution, but now we do a lot of small intimate events as well. Our more introverted students feel safer there. The barrier to participation is low. They feel much more comfortable coming and participating, and we intentionally make introductions and strive to help students get connected and get to know each other.
The other thing we know is Gen-Z engages online in a totally different way than student ever have before in terms of finding new friends through social media, video gaming, etc. We have to listen to the students’ voices and not always define engagement the way we expect. We in higher education can get stuck doing the same thing. We have to evolve as students change and evolve.