Quality Enhancement Plan to Help MC Students Chart Clear Pathway to Graduation
Effective advising is the lifeblood of any student’s successful university experience.
Students may choose to attend college for a host of reasons, from the high-quality degrees they can earn to the fun-filled atmosphere they can experience; but budding scholars must rely on their advisors to help them navigate course requirements and stay on track to reach their academic goals – on time and within budget.
It’s such an important aspect of university life that, when an institutional development committee invited Mississippi College faculty, staff, and students to select one of three potential options to address with a Quality Enhancement Plan this spring, advising was chosen by a significant margin.
“The advising QEP topic will slot under the Student Success rubric as something that positively affects students’ completion rates and retention at the University,” said Dr. Jonathan Randle, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and leader of MC’s QEP development. “It’s not so much a learning outcome; rather, we’re focusing on student logistics – making sure that MC students have a clear pathway to graduation.”
An important component of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges reaccreditation process, the QEP affirms the institution’s commitment to enhancing the quality of higher education and focusing on student outcomes.
The plan represents a carefully designed course of action that addresses a well-defined, focused topic or issue related to student learning or student success. Embedded within the institution’s ongoing comprehensive planning and evaluation process, the QEP identifies specific goals and outlines a method to assess their achievement.
“Academic institutions are required by their accrediting agency to develop, script, propose, and execute a plan based upon ongoing strategic planning conversations or assessment and evaluation protocols that emerge from the institution itself,” Randle said. “SACSCOC gave the institution free rein to choose whatever topic we wanted, but it had to address a concern that has arisen out of the institution’s ongoing internal discussions about how to improve and positively affect our students.”
During the last 18 months, Randle and the QEP Development Committee whittled an original list of 15 viable QEP topics solicited from MC faculty, staff, and students, down to three with the greatest promise: advising, experiential learning, and a Milestone Achievement Program.
The group issued white papers on all three topics, explaining how they would substantially affect student learning outcomes and student success. Although each was positively received by MC faculty, staff, students, board members, and alumni, advising garnered overwhelming support.
“Having a more robust advising system will help MC students feel more prepared as they progress towards their degree, and will help them look toward the ways that their degree will be useful in their eventual vocation,” said Taylor Hathorn, coordinator of data and communications in the Office of the Registrar. Along with Elizabeth Milner, assistant registrar, Hathorn wrote the white paper that described the need for a university-wide focus on advising, and how a QEP on advising might be implemented.
“Right now, faculty advise students in addition to their teaching duties, and while most MC faculty cherish this opportunity to connect with their students, it’s essentially a self-taught system, since there’s minimal advisor training and support. Good advisors equip their advisees to advocate for themselves and to take ownership of their college experience.
“The challenge of any QEP is having the campus work together to envision a better future for the University and then live into that future together. Any QEP is uncharted territory, but I am very hopeful that this topic will support our faculty while improving the student experience.”
In April, a QEP Steering and Implementation Committee began building a comprehensive plan for the project, including how it will be funded, implemented, and assessed during the coming months.
“Advising is central to the work we do at MC,” said Dr. Daniel J. White, assistant professor of English and philosophy, who has served as the QEP’s “scribe” during the planning and implementation phases. “The curriculum is often intricate and complicated, and students rarely understand why they are experiencing it. By focusing on advising, we have a chance to increase how our students understand the curriculum, and turn them from passive voyagers into active participants in their education at MC.
“Advising is, in many ways, intimate. It shares borders with close, one-on-one educational experiences, like mentoring and coaching. As such, advising is one place where a small, comprehensive university like MC can invest in our undergraduates.
“By intentionally pairing students with advisors who are knowledgeable of our curriculum, attentive to the students’ needs and capabilities, and passionate about seeing our students succeed, we should foster even stronger bonds between students and their faculty and staff. Such a focus should result in greater student success when measured by retention, job placement, or even alumni engagement.”
The QEP project would be designed to rearticulate what academic advising should look like at Mississippi College.
“Advising is an integral part of our students’ success,” said Dr. Debbie Norris, associate provost and Graduate School dean. “Effective advising has many byproducts: improved graduation rates, students who are directed toward the right path, and satisfied alumni.
“Since each program’s requirements are different and students are pulled in many directions, the advising process is very complex, and in some cases, decentralized, making it difficult to be sure nothing is left to chance. So proper procedures and training are required.”
Randle said many undergraduate students face adversities and pressures that have never been authentically engaged at the advisory level, primarily because advisors have traditionally been responsible for students’ academic progress only. The QEP project would allow other student support offices on campus, such as financial aid or counseling services, to play a role in a more comprehensive advising model.
“We’re hoping we can develop a scheme that would give students a consistent, holistic advising approach,” he said. “Academic advisors would still be instrumental in meeting the students and seeing them progress through their chosen curriculum, but we also want a multi-departmental presence, someone who can be a success coach or mentor, a point of contact for any issues the students may come across.
“The advising QEP would be an attempt to expand and strengthen the advising process at MC so our students are checked on consistently and have a resource they can access, no matter what obstacles or difficulties might emerge. If we can engage the students at their point of need, rather than wait until their final semester, we can make a real difference.”
He said more students are entering higher education without understanding what program of study is best for them, let alone what career they would like to pursue after graduation. A “one-size-fits-all” advising plan is no longer the optimum choice.
“Each student comes to MC from a completely different background, with a completely different skillset,” Randle said. “There’s no magic recipe that will let them follow a series of enumerated steps to earn the best degree. We have to meet students as individuals and figure out where they’re coming from before we can advise and coach them successfully.
“We have to think of advising as more than just scheduling classes, but having meaningful and more substantive conversations with students.”
Autumn Norman, executive assistant to the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, administrative assistant in the Department of English and Philosophy, and a member of the QEP Development Committee, said when done holistically, advising can impact more than just a student’s academic progress.
“The committee is passionate about building a student advising plan that will align with our institutional mission to shepherd the students in our care during their time here at Mississippi College,” Norman said. “Students are instrumental in making choices about their pathway during college, and when we develop a new advising model, we would hope to see students moving successfully through their academic programs, plugged into organizations on campus that they are passionate about, and finding the guidance that they need to navigate their journey through college.
“Rearticulating what advising looks like at MC is not so much a challenge, as an opportunity. We have the space to reimagine and conceptualize what ‘advising‘ means and what it can do, in its optimal form, for the success of our students.”
At present, neither Randle nor any QEP Steering and Implementation Committee member knows what the new academic advising system at MC will look like – that’s what the QEP development process will determine – but the committee understands that, to be more effective, it must expand and improve the institution’s current advising model.
“We’ve seen students with unimaginable pressures outside of the classroom: family issues, financial and economic concerns, first-generation college attendees, underprivileged students, and students from diverse backgrounds,” he said. “We have to think through what our students need.
“We must be willing to advocate for our students, to help take some of the pressure off their shoulders, so they can complete their education and reverse the lowering degree completion and retention rates we’ve seen during the last decade.”
The QEP Steering and Implementation Committee is required to complete the plan before the SACSCOC accreditation team’s site visit in March 2023. Committee members will reach out to MC faculty, staff, and students this fall to discover what specific advisory issues, outcomes, and objectives are important to them, how they could be measured and addressed, and what resources may be required. The committee also will form working groups to analyze robust advising programs at other institutions.
Randle said the MC Family can expect plenty of conversations and brainstorming sessions in the coming months to develop a fully engaged advising program that will serve as a hallmark of student success at the University.
“This is an opportunity for MC to build something that will have a lasting effect on our students,” he said. “Our mission statement talks about our intention as an institution to stimulate the intellectual development of our students, as well as their social, emotional, and spiritual development. By strengthening our advising program, we can engage our students more, really get to know them as individuals and fellow image-bearers of God, and develop better relationships with them.
“This is going to amplify a positive dimension of MC as a teaching and relational university, and it’s going to have a profound return on investment. If our faculty can show our students we want them to be community members with us, that we’re here as resources for them, we’re on their side, we’re cheering them on, and we have a team of folks here to help be there for them, it can do nothing but increase MC’s reputation and enhance our effect on our students.”