Kristie Berthelotte helps a student

The Starting “Block”

Changes to advising, an overhaul of the freshman experience, and an emphasis on taking a full course load are getting today's Rebels off to the right start. It's all part of helping students stick with their studies and graduate on time.

Carl Reiber admits his own early days on a college campus were intimidating. He sums up his own freshman experience with this story: “The parents rolled up to school, threw you out the door, and said ‘Come back in four years with a degree.’ At orientation, a dean would say ‘Look to your left, look to your right — half of those people will be gone in a year,’” Reiber recalled. “To me, that’s just irresponsible.”

Thankfully, today’s UNLV freshmen don’t experience this ineffective trial-by-fire approach. Recent changes aimed at boosting graduation rates are ensuring students start their college careers with clear paths to attaining their degrees.

It started with administrators recognizing the changing student profile. Long considered a commuter school that catered to working professionals and part-timers taking courses on the side, today’s UNLV has a full-time student contingent topping 70 percent. Many are staying on campus for activities, tutoring, study groups and research with peers and professors. And, according to survey research, they’ve arranged their work schedules to give priority to their studies.

“They may be going home to sleep at mom and dads’ house, but they are coming on campus and staying all day,” Reiber said. “And being a student is their priority. The library’s packed. The student union’s packed. Our student population is increasingly the ‘traditional’ student you’d see at any major institution. This has been a game changer for the university.”

Set Up for Success

Several years back, officials realized that freshman orientation and advising programs were failing to set students up for success. Students, particularly first-generation college students, found too little guidance on the mechanics of getting through the university system.

Gayle Juneau-Butler, assistant vice provost for retention, progression & completion, said changes made the advising process more intentional and driven by outcomes. The ultimate goal is to create what she calls a “sticky campus,” where students become engaged in the campus community and create academic plans to graduate in a timely manner.

15-to-Finish Fall 2014 Outcomes Report coverOne of the biggest changes: block scheduling. In fall 2013, advisors began automatically enrolling incoming students in classes based on what they say they want to major in. A typical schedule includes required math and English courses, an introductory course for the chosen major, the freshman seminar, and an elective.

Left to completely to their own devices, officials found, some students were confused by the many choices. And, Reiber said, “they often put off the required courses they were intimidated by, such as math. Down the road, this backfired when they couldn’t enroll in a needed upper division class because they hadn’t fulfilled that math prerequisite.”

UNLV students from a decade ago might remember the frustrating freshman experience of being last in line to register and then finding many courses sessions closed. Another all-too-common issue: “Advising holds” blocked new students from registering until they connected with an advisor. But then students faced bottlenecks, particularly just before the semester started, trying to reach an advisor.

Advising sessions now are incorporated into the required freshman orientation session, making it much easier for a freshman to get their initial advising session ticked off the to-do list.

“A student should not have the question of where to schedule an appointment for advising,” Juneau-Butler said. “Nor should it become perceived as just another bureaucratic process being touted as an academic requirement.”

Advising is now intentionally connected to other academic support units, which have come together under UNLV’s "first-year experience," which helps students adjust to university life.  

She added that although today’s students are immersed in technology, “Consistently, 75 percent of UNLV students indicate that they want to look an advisor in the eye to have the important conversations about their individual academic journeys.”

Blocked, But Not Locked In

Las Vegas Valley native Nicole Thomas bristled at the thought of block scheduling when she enrolled as a freshman in fall 2013. Her path was pretty clear to her — she plans to become a professor and conduct research on evolutionary ecology — and she felt hemmed in by her initial block schedule. “I was surprised at how flexible they were,” she said of her first advising session. “They switched everything around. Compared to high school, they were so helpful.”

For students with less concrete career plans, block scheduling has removed anxiety over what to take. It also eliminates the trial-and-error process of hunting down open sessions. “Block scheduling essentially guarantees them a spot in class,” Reiber said. “It lets them focus on changing just the one or two classes to suit their preference rather than trying to cobble together everything all at once.”

Their first advising session also is a critical moment in what Juneau-Butler refers to as “graduation visualization.” Advisors establish an anticipated graduation date and walk students through degree maps showing required classes and the optimal course rotations for a four- or five-year graduation plan. Advisors also provide students with career resources such as resume writing and interview preparation to ready them for internships and landing that first professional job.

Advisors couple face-to-face student appointments with UNLV’s new Success Student Collaborative, software that connects predictive analytics with advising outcomes for students. The system culls factors like a student’s GPA, credits completed toward their degree, and academic milestones to provide a risk rating for a student to potentially not graduate.

The software provides advisors “a 30-second gut check on how a student is performing,” Juneau-Butler explained. “Based on the risk, academic advisors have more information about the students and can make the appropriate referrals and interventions to keep them on track.”

15 to Finish

UNLV also worked recently to set the expectation that students complete at least 30 credits a year. The move is part of the 15-to-Finish campaign that the Nevada System of Higher Education initiated a few years ago at all of its institutions. It is backed by research from Complete College America, a national nonprofit think tank studying best practices for boosting college degree attainment. According to the organization, students enrolled in at least 15 credits not only complete their degrees faster, they perform much better in class.

That research also holds true at UNLV. Among the 2014 crop of freshman, those taking fewer than 12 credits had a 2.51 GPA; meanwhile, those taking 12 to 15 credits averaged a 2.76 GPA; and others taking more than 15 credits saw a 2.94 GPA average.

Students are getting the “15 to Finish” message loud and clear. The number of incoming freshmen taking 15 or more credits in fall 2014 was more than double that of 2012.

Becoming a Rebel

Getting a freshman excited about learning and acclimated to UNLV is one step. But keeping that fire going for four or five years is another story. The research opportunities UNLV offers undergraduates can be motivators — but only if students know about them.

Along with advising sessions, an academic induction ceremony called UNLV Creates is another recent addition to freshman Welcome Day. At the event, students are presented with an honorary cord, the same one they can drape around their necks four years later at commencement. They hear top professors speak about their research experiences and life stories. The event is a chance for students to grasp the difference between a true university experience and simply taking classes, Reiber asserts.

“We're trying to light that fire in students at UNLV Creates. Coming to UNLV is not just a matter of showing up in class. You’re now a part of a university with a research mission, and you have the opportunity to be immersed in scholarship,” Reiber said. “For first-generation college students, this message is especially important. It can really can shape their identity as Rebels.”

When the undergraduate curriculum was overhauled a few years ago, UNLV reorganized some of its introductory courses into progressive seminars. The First-Year Seminar introduces students to UNLV’s education curriculum and sets the expectation for college-level work. It also introduces research methods within the context of their specific degree. The second-year seminar builds critical thinking, research, and writing skills to prepare students for upper division coursework.

"Get them involved early and there’s a much higher probability of graduating and a much higher probability of graduate school," Reiber added.

Research has certainly motivated Thomas. She works with a group visiting Tule Springs to study 30,000 year-old fossilized rodents to better understand their travel habits. And for a physics research project, she studies the carbon structure of graphite and how it behaves under radiation.

Thomas takes advantage of free tutoring available to all UNLV students on campus and spends much of her day on UNLV’s increasingly “sticky campus.”

“I’m on campus pretty much from about nine in the morning to eight at night,” she said. “It’s so much easier to get thing done while I’m here. I can study and if I have questions I can jump to the tutoring center. I’m surrounded by people who understand what I’m doing.”

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