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How Ferris State Helps Students “ReFOCUS” on Academics

Episode 190

April 2, 2024


EAB’s Linda Marchlewski hosts a conversation with Jason Bentley and Shelly VandePanne from Ferris State University about their school’s involvement in EAB’s Moon Shot for Equity as well as the “ReFOCUS” program at Ferris. The program enables Ferris students who are struggling academically, to engage in skill-building, receive academic, social, and financial support, and get back on track instead of falling through the cracks. The three also offer advice to other higher education leaders about how to get technology, staff, and volunteers from across your campus community to work together to help students succeed and build a stronger sense of belonging.


0:00:11.0 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Our guests today discuss a program they launched at Ferris State University to help students who are struggling academically. Now, that may not sound like groundbreaking work, but the data suggests that once a student finds themselves on academic probation, keeping that student in school and getting them back on track academically is incredibly difficult to do. The team at Ferris seemed to have found an approach that works, so give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:40.8 Linda Marchlewski: So, hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Linda Marchlewski, and the primary focus of my role at EAB is to help institutions eliminate or adapt practices that create barriers for students to earn their college degree. And one of the most significant projects that we’ve undertaken on this front was the 2020 launch of EAB’s Moon Shot for Equity. Over the last several years, we’ve grown into a national community of practice with more than 20 colleges, universities and trade schools participating. Each of those campuses are working to implement a set of research backed best practices that include leveraging technology and data insights to identify pain points in the student experience. And ultimately, we’re putting in place support structures that lead to more graduates. I arguably have one of the best jobs.

0:01:31.2 LM: Now, one of our early pioneering institutions in the Moon Shot for Equity was Ferris State University, who launched in 2021, what they’ve come to call Ferris’s Equity Initiative. It is my pleasure to introduce two leaders from Ferris to talk about one of the many strategies that they’ve been deploying to improve student outcomes and narrow equity gaps. Dr. Jason Bentley’s, Ferris’s Dean of University College, and Shelly VandePanne is the Director of Student Academic Affairs. Jason and Shelly, welcome to the podcast.

0:02:01.4 Shelly VandePanne: Thanks. It’s great to be here today.

0:02:02.3 Jason Bentley: Thanks for having us.

0:02:05.1 LM: Excellent. To start us off, Jason, would you mind telling us just a little bit about Ferris State, the makeup of your student body and the decision to launch versus equity initiative?

0:02:17.8 JB: Yeah, thank you for the opportunity I’ll start with the words of our founder. Get all the knowledge you can, but use your knowledge in the right way. And if you do that, it will be of untold benefit to you. Don’t use it to oppress others. And when you see someone trying to rise and to do the right thing, don’t be selfish, but try to help that person rise. From our founding Ferris State University has been an institution that is focused on opportunity and improving social and economic mobility. And that’s the work that we’re doing today in our own way in this contemporary time, is building on that vision from our founder. Not only of many, many first generation faculty, staff, and students, but also a NASPA First Scholars institution, helping other institutions think about and do the hard work of supporting those individuals who are the first in their family. So as an institution we support students from every walk of life, and we’ve been doing that since the late 1800s.

0:03:25.7 LM: Excellent. I always love coming to Big Rapids because it’s so clear when I’m working with your campus leaders that they’ve taken that founding mission to heart. Now you are both kind enough to accept one of our invitations to give a presentation at EABs recent Connected Conference. And those of you that are listening who might be unfamiliar with the event, it is to my knowledge, the largest annual gathering of higher education student success leaders in the world. It’s my personal Coachella and my favorite time of the year. And we’ve asked you at our last connected conference to talk about your Refocus program at Ferris, which is designed to help students on academic probation and academic notice engage in skill building supports to get back on track. So, Shelly, the data paint a pretty bleak picture about what happens to students across higher ed who find themselves on academic notice. How big of a challenge is it statistically speaking to get these students back on track?

0:04:15.0 SV: Linda, it’s a huge challenge like many institutions who are struggling with enrollment we’re working with a changing demographic of students. We have an increased number of first generation students, economically disadvantaged students, and students who are just unprepared for college. They often come to us not knowing how to seek or ask for assistance or get help. They don’t know what they don’t know, and they avoid utilizing the resources that are available to them. Statistically, only 5% of our students who are on academic probation in their first semester graduate with any type of degree or certificate within five years of affairs. We’re hoping to change that.

0:04:53.1 LM: Oof, that’s a pretty bleak picture. And I know Ferris is not alone when you’re at Connected, I believe you all actually encourage campus leaders in attendance to pull that data that they haven’t already. And I’m just gonna make a plug now for our listeners to do the same. If you don’t know the outcomes of students who are placed on academic notice, go ahead and check that out, because that might galvanize campus like I know it did for you all. And so let’s actually dig into that a little bit more, the Refocus program has quite a colorful origin story. And so Shelly, would you mind sharing what led up to the creation of the program? And more broadly, just what were those conditions or circumstances at Ferris that led you and others to just act so quickly?

0:05:33.5 SV: Yeah, Linda, at Connected 22, Ferris had a large contingence of attendees representing all their colleges and several departments at Ferris. We had faculty, we had administrators. There were a lot of people there. We were new to navigate, and we were really learning the ropes. Thanks to Hurricane Nicole, I lovingly call this conference the Hurricane Conference. And thanks to that we are given an extended stay at the hotel. One evening while we were playing cards and sharing some beverages, we were sharing highlights of the conference, and we were talking about how we could use Navigate to better support our struggling students. I mentioned to the group that I had attended a session highlighting an academic recovery program for students at Middle Tennessee State, and I thought it might be a good idea to try something like that at Ferris. So I asked my colleagues if they thought it might work for Ferris students, and they were all on board.

0:06:24.5 SV: They were overwhelmingly thinking it’d be a great idea, but who would do it? So I ran with it. The involvement in our Moon Shot program fit perfectly with Ferris Equity Initiative, and it enabled us to move more quickly than we might have done that otherwise. So getting shortly or moving into the program in just a few more short months some of the supports that we put in place, in., and, Refocus at Ferris included starting… Well before leaving Florida, I contacted Middle Tennessee State and they were gracious enough to share their program outline and all of the resources. And so we began assembling the plane as we flew it as soon as I got back and on campus, I met with my team who was comprised of an academic advisor, a department secretary, and an our tuition center program coordinator. And we met to review what they did at Middle Tennessee State.

0:07:15.4 SV: And we outlined our own potential program at Ferris. I ran the idea past Jason who fully supported it and volunteered to coach students himself. We scheduled a series of five workshops covering things like study strategies, time management, growth mindset, career planning, and how to write financial aid appeals in the event they didn’t meet satisfactory academic progress. By the end of the school year, we quickly had a website created with all the program details and responsibilities for both students and coaches and an application… We wanted them to be clear about what it was that we would do for them so to get started, I was able to run a report and identify and send emails to about 380 students who were on academic probation, letting them know that Refocus at Ferris was there to help them, and we wanted to help them return to good academic standing, cultivate self-efficacy and self-esteem, and increase their sense of belonging.

0:08:18.9 SV: A lot of times these students really struggle and they struggle with the imposter syndrome thinking that they don’t belong here. We wanted to help them build sustainable relationships with the various on campus resources that were available. To them to get volunteer coaches we purposely sought out professional coaches to be a success coach for each student. So to get those volunteers, I share our initiative at various meetings with college directors we have an academic leadership council that’s attended by deans, department heads directors all across campus. And through a variety of university announcements, we were asking for success coaches. We really had a great response. We were able to pair over 50 students with deans, the associate provost, administrators, faculty, clerical staff, and hall directors as success coaches, people were really excited to be there to help students and pay forward what was done for them in previous years when they were college students. Again, we wanted to pair them with professional as opposed to peer mentors because we wanted these students to know that they were seen and that they were important, so much so that the professionals across campus were willing to spend time with them.

0:09:34.1 LM: Now, I would love to just underscore that for a moment, because I think what is so incredible is that it was November, 2022, you’re at Connected, you see something that Middle Tennessee State University is doing. You get trapped there during a hurricane, share it with your colleagues, and then within two months, you are launching a brand new program by the next Connected, you are presenting on Impact, which is just incredible, incredible work. And I think that really speaks to the power of that broader community of practice that you’re engaging in and contributing to actively. Now, I would actually love to delve a little bit into some of the objectives for the program. So Jason what were those specific objectives that you really sought to accomplish through Refocus? And then what types of metrics and data did you collect to gauge the success of your efforts?

0:10:19.4 JB: Well, I’m not gonna steal any of the great work from Shelly, I think as you listen to Shelly talk, it’s evident that lift between the end of November when you think about what happens at the end of November and breaks and then what happened with the semester break, all of this was in part to an overwhelming show of support, but also an overwhelming show of leadership on the part of Shelly so the point here was we had made some adjustments in our enrollment and by adjustments, I mean, we historically had looked at students who were still deciding on a program of study or still working to qualify for their preferred program of study. And those students would come in and receive really strong support through University College. And what we were hearing is that students were gaining direct admission to their preferred program other places. And we were concerned about our ability to be competitive in an increasingly competitive enrollment market.

0:11:20.5 JB: So what happened is we made a decision that we were going to try to provide the best possible support, but to allow students to move directly into their preferred program so what we were seeing just before we attended Connected was an increase in the number of students who were on academic mid midterm warning and so our hypothesis was that we were going to run into an issue where our already alarming rates of students who ended up on academic notice or academic probation and not being successful, that we would see a trend where that would increase given the change in our admission process.

0:12:06.4 JB: So what were we paying attention to? Well, we were paying attention to midterm grades. We were paying attention to attempted and completed hours for satisfactory academic progress. We were absolutely paying attention to the fact that we had long standing historic equity gaps between students who have been historically underserved in higher education. And that’s true too, at Ferris State. So we were paying attention to all of that. And here comes this program and Shelly’s leadership that says we can do something about what ended up as we dug into the data really being about equity work. So it’s about student success, but many of the students that were struggling in their adjustment to college, and increasingly so because they didn’t have the same wraparound support from University College, were students who were first in their family. They were students who came from family circumstances that allowed them less resourcing than other families in terms of socioeconomic support and they were students who largely represented groups that were historically underserved in higher education.

0:13:06.3 JB: So while we were focused on helping all students, what we ended up seeing is we were also helping close equity gaps so that that is in terms of broad metrics, what we were concerned about is we wanted to see that rate decrease, but we really wanted to make sure that as that rate was decreasing, that we found a way, given the change in the admissions approach, that we needed to have a way to support students who were no longer tied to our college and as you might expect when students have many options, and one of those options is to kind of just avoid things when you have a dean and a college that isn’t your college reaching out and offering to help ensure you have the best possible experience, it’s easy to ignore a couple of folks that aren’t in your program or in your college. So Refocus allowed us to think about this and approach this differently.

0:14:03.1 LM: I appreciate…

0:14:05.3 SV: If I could follow up on… Linda, if I could follow up on that too. In terms of measurement and success, we discovered that students who participated, who met with their coach, who went to the workshops, had fewer midterm grade warnings than those who didn’t, they were retained at higher rates into the next semester than those who didn’t. They still needed additional assistance in the follow-up semesters, but we could share with them if they put that extra effort in and let us help them, that they could be more successful.

0:14:33.5 LM: I remember when you first shared with me the pilot data and just how strong that correlation was between semester GPA and engagement with three focus programs, specifically those workshops. And as you think about how we’re motivating students to engage with programs, ’cause let’s admit it, we’ve put in place many great support programs that can show great impact for students, but sometimes the biggest challenge is just getting students to engage with those programs altogether I’m interested in what help did you think drive student engagement with Refocus overall? And Shelly, I’ll go to you on that one.

0:15:13.7 SV: Well, if you feed them, they will come, we advertise to the students that at each workshop we would give them… We’d have meals there for them for every workshop they attended they got their name into a drawing for either $100 or $500 book scholarships for the upcoming semester. We wanted them to know that by being pair or by participating, they’d be paired with a professional who cared about their success. I know I said that before, but that means so much because I’ve had students come up and when I asked them what was the most important, what stood out the most, one young lady said, just knowing that somebody cared reached out to me and so we want them to be with those coaches who could get them the academic and social support. Again, the challenge was getting students to actually respond and meet with their coaches.

0:16:03.3 LM: Yeah, I think that… Oh, please.

0:16:04.3 JB: And that can also be true if you think back to the start of this, we started in January and it was almost like asking folks to take a first step to trust a university professional that maybe they’d never met, and at least start to walk a slightly different journey. And I think what helped in some cases is that there were some trusted folks on campus that knew the student. And I’ll speak from personal experience. I reached out to students to get them to meet. They don’t know me, no matter what I offered, but I knew who they were connected to because of the fact that we had just implemented Navigate 360. And I was able to leverage other relationships to help those individuals on campus encourage the student to take the time to have a first meeting with me. And Shelly talked about the positive results, but all of that work, just being prepared to meet a student each time where they were with what they needed. And it allowed us to see a 30% improvement in attrition.

0:17:16.8 JB: Meaning we reduced the number of students who were struggling by 30% and what I worried, frankly, was that’s great for that semester. What happens next fall? What happens the following spring? And I’m really pleased to say that those results are holding stronger than maybe we thought they might and we have some good ideas about how we can continue to strengthen that. But I don’t wanna underscore that having other folks that maybe they aren’t the professional coach, but to help reinforce how important this is that really helped.

0:17:57.5 LM: I love the insight that I was able to get into the role of the coach a little bit through you, Jason. I remember we were at Connected co-presenting, and you were in the moment texting one of the folks you were a coach for. And I think that it speaks to the longstanding relationship and how once you’re able to establish, and again, first step is the most difficult, but once you establish that relationship, it’s really powerful to have someone you have a personal connection with saying, Hey, just a reminder about the workshop. And then saying that they’re excited to debrief it with them. Jason, do you wanna speak a little bit more towards just your role as a coach and then how you saw that playing into the student engagement with the Refocus program?

0:18:36.0 JB: I’ve yet to meet a student, Linda, that doesn’t want to be successful. And here’s what I’ll say to folks. As you think about this kind of work, the benefit is as great for you as the person that’s providing some support and mentoring. I had a new and profound understanding of some of the complexities that our students face. It’s one thing to look at national data or institutional data, but it humanized for me, the number of students that we have who are worried about their next meal, who have housing insecurity, perhaps have some challenges at home and don’t have the kind of support that maybe would be like to think many of our students have. The students I had the opportunity to work with had really ambitious goals, and it boiled down to just having the skill set to manage all of the requirements that go into being a university student.

0:19:43.8 JB: Understanding how to outline and think about scope and sequence, what the semester is gonna require of you, that you’re not up against deadlines and having to work on three or four papers. We’ve spent an hour every week together, I spent that with each student and we would review their assignments, I knew what they were reading. In a couple of cases I had the same book, and I was reading along to make sure we could have conversations. We were looking at the outline of their assignments, and I was holding them accountable for the type of deliverables that they should be able to produce two weeks ahead of an assignment, the week of an assignment, down to the point where major assignments at the end. I was double-checking with them that they had done what they said they were going to do.

0:20:27.1 JB: And for example, one student did a complete 180, went from being on academic warning to being on the dean’s list. And it largely had to do with utilizing resources. Acknowledging that there are good reasons to enlist the help of others, and that that doesn’t mean that somehow you are… You’re in a setting where you don’t really belong. Overcoming the sense of maybe impostor syndrome. And for other students, it’s about getting them past this perfectionist approach that I can’t produce anything or share anything because I don’t think it’s perfect yet. We just have to get started. So for me, the best part was just being able to meet each student where they were, where they were at in that moment and understand. And you’d be surprised, some students what they need is just a call or a text in the morning to make sure that they get out of bed.

0:21:24.4 SV: And as Jason said, sometimes it was challenging for the students that cold called meeting with somebody they didn’t know. We’ve made a lot of changes along the way. We learned a lot of things. So for our second aeration, we had a meet and greet for coaches and students, so that they could see that person, put their name and face together, and just a fun setting before their meetings. We started doing some training for coaches, so I had a monthly coaches coffee hour. We’d buy them Starbucks, and we would talk about things like sample coaching questions from interacting with students, because not everybody’s had the experience that Jason has had. We talked about how to help students through an academic recovery plan, navigate training, how to utilize that for scheduling appointments and putting in the summaries.

0:22:18.5 SV: We’ve done all kinds of things. We increased or improved our canvas shell by getting fillable forms for academic self-assessments, academic recovery plans and time and grade predictions, so the students and coaches both had access to those resources, so they can talk through them together and set their goals together. One of the things, I was just talking with Jason not too long ago, and we’re thinking of adding just one more incentive for the students to meet with their coaches. We’re thinking that if they meet with the coach at least three times they’ll get something, maybe a micro-grant or whatever it may be, just to get that one more incentive in there for those students. Because those who do participate, love it. They love it and they keep coming back.

0:23:01.6 SV: Nick Palmer down the hall is one of our co-founders with this program, and he has three students also from the first time around. One comes in every single week to see him. Every single week. Because they’ve made that connection. It’s awesome. And if anybody else is wondering how to get started with something like this, I would tell them, just do it. Just do it.

0:23:22.3 LM: And not only do the students love it, it’s playing out in the data, which I think is really powerful. And there are two themes that I’m really pulling from, you’re sharing with me right now. And one is that the engagement with the Refocus program ultimately drives engagement with other existing student supports at Ferris, and that critical role of the coach. I would love to hear a little bit more about. You only had two months to do this, how did you get that level of engagement amongst faculty and staff? What do you think contributed to that?

0:23:55.2 SV: I think at Ferris, there is widespread desire to help students succeed? . We know that there’s… And when we saw people like deans or the associate provost, governmental relationship, relations, people stepping in, others wanted to help too. And there’s a lot of people who didn’t feel they had the opportunity to be student-centered.

0:24:15.9 SV: They weren’t an advisor. Maybe they’re a secretary, but they still have that desire. And I think Ferris is very much built on leading others and helping others to succeed. So I feel very blessed to work here. It’s an awesome place because it’s very student-centered.

0:24:36.5 JB: I echo what Shelly, just relayed. We have a campus culture where folks are focused on belongingness, inclusion, and we see the opportunity for everybody in whatever your role is, it plays out in how a student feels about being here. So if you work in dining services, you’re working around students and you are impacting that student employee or that student that comes in between classes for a meal, how they feel about being here. If you are the secretary in our academic support center, and students are coming in for tutoring, you’re helping them feel good about being there, making sure that while they’re there, if they’re hungry, that they have something to eat. There’s a role that everybody can play and what Shelly offered and what this program offered was one more opportunity to help support our students. And again, we have vice presidents who are doing this work.

0:25:34.5 LM: It’s really powerful, I think, to have that level of cross-campus engagement, and despite the many demands that we know are placed on campus leaders to have that many people raising their hands saying they wanna contribute to the success of Ferris’ equity initiative. It’s really powerful. Now, you’ve alluded a little bit to some of the Navigate360 components of the Refocus program. Jason, would you mind telling us a little bit more about the role that technology played in these efforts, and then maybe a little bit on how you integrated Refocus into some of the existing work of those tasks with improving student outcomes at Ferris?

0:26:05.1 JB: Yeah, we wanna take a long view of this initiative and the efficacy of the work. We also are financing all of this through soft fund, so we wanna be really intentional about what we track and how we’re able to report on this as we think about resourcing and long-term sustainability of the work. So the positive is we’re able to work very closely with our university registrar to create coding, and then that coding and mapping that coding and tagging through Navigate360 has allowed us to understand the students, to identify students who could benefit. And going forward, students that may benefit from a strong start coaching rather than recovery coaching. So that’s a preview of what’s to come. But in the short-term, meaning in the past year, since this program started, we’re able to know from the case notes that they had an appointment that was related to Refocus. So the appointment type in Navigate360, the outcome of those appointments, how many students engaged and scheduled and kept appointments versus those that perhaps missed. So when we’re reporting, not only do we know how well did they do in midterm grades or final grades, in terms of those, what I’ll refer to as those lagging indicators, those outcomes, we also know the inputs.

0:27:32.9 JB: We know whether somebody in the first few weeks has actually met with that mentor. And if they haven’t, we can direct some nudging and additional support campaign. So we’re using Navigate360 not only to have an ability to look at the population and look at the health of that population from year to year, semester to semester, but also the lead indicators. Are they engaging in services, how many of them have utilized tutoring? So because of our mapping of an integration of all of our appointment types from tutoring and from an academic advising, from conversations with our financial advisor, communications from our Bursar in terms of billing. As we’ve grown and further integrated that we’re able to see a complete picture. So if we’re working with a student who had a tough start to college and they are in end of January, we’re not seeing a change in terms of their engagement with the type of supports that we know contribute to a better collegiate academic experience, meaning better grades, better satisfaction, a greater sense of engagement or greater engagement and greater sense of belonging, we’re able to take a hard look at that and say, “Okay, what else can we do for this student. Who have they met with? Could we leverage?”

0:28:49.4 JB: And in some cases, the toughest population are the student athletes. And that’s top of mind because we have some outstanding, highly successful athletic programs at Ferris, and when our student athletes are in season, it’s really hard to get on their radar because they’re so focused on their sport. What helps is when we can see that and we can see all this information in one place, it may be that we’re seeing a concern, we’re able to collaborate with athletics and their supports, for example, and sometimes it’s actually calling their position coach and saying, “This student athlete needs to be doing these three things.” And I’ll just say “Your athletic departments, wherever you are.” It’s refreshing, at least this is what they tell me, it’s refreshing to being so engaged with the academic side of the house and what we’re doing. And we now have students that are telling incoming recruited students, as we’re recruiting students, and new athletic, student athlete recruits, they’re telling them about this program, and they’re talking about how much the institution cares about their success. So that’s both our student athletes and our non-student athletes. So a year in, we have, I think we have really great momentum because we have students who have recovered and are doing really well, and they’re telling other students why they should want to connect and be a part of this program, if they run into a challenge.

0:30:22.2 LM: Appreciate it.

0:30:22.2 SV: I’d like to say the progress reporting feature, Navigate has been instrumental in those two. We reached out, week four, asking faculty how the students were doing, so we could be more proactive and getting them to the resources instead of waiting till mid-term grades came out when it may be too late.

0:30:40.4 LM: I really appreciate how you all have been using the technology. And we talk so much in The Moon Shot for Equity about how we have to be data-informed and tech-enabled, and I think you’ve really embodied that through Ferris’ equity initiative. I should also give a shout out, as of recording, I believe you have two basketball teams in the elite eight, and so as we wrap up, I’ll be checking scores for the women’s team. And to close this out, I just wanna give you all both an opportunity to share what advice would you maybe impart to other university leaders who are thinking about taking similar steps? Jason, we’ll start with you.

0:31:14.4 JB: I would encourage you to talk about something that we didn’t really appreciate it at the beginning, and that is a strong value of having top leadership engaging with students. Shelly is gonna talk to you about all the practical reasons this works, and it’s important to work for students and their success, but something we have not talked at all about is the fact that when you’re a senior VP and you’re working with a student and you’re hearing about and seeing what’s going on, it’s really powerful. We have a vice president who works with government relations, who is thinking about what we can be doing in terms of funding and legislation and requests for additional support, given the fact that the experience of students is even more real because of their work one-on-one with students. And they’re seeing the kind of data that often folks like us look at, but maybe a vice president of marketing and communications or advancement wouldn’t see every day. So I would just say for folks that are considering something like this, there is great benefit to the student by being partnered with senior leaders. But there’s a really, really powerful insight that’s gained by the senior leaders working with students who are struggling.

0:32:34.4 LM: And Shelly?

0:32:37.4 SV: What I would follow up with is if you have somebody who has the desire to do, to start a program like this, let them run with it, let them run. Don’t worry about going through committees. I’m the fly by the seat of my pants type of person. So when Jason says, yeah, we can do that, it’s like all right, we got plans, we’re doing this now. I wasn’t sure how we were gonna make it happen, but like I said, we learned a lot of things along the way. But just do it. Just do it.

0:33:03.3 LM: And with that, I wanna close out and just thank you both so much, Shelly and Jason. I also wanna express my gratitude for your ongoing contributions to our Moonshot Community of Practice. I think Ferris has really demonstrated how you can take a group of committed leaders, act on new ideas and then pay it forward by sharing your insights with the broader community. We are actively using these insights, to not just evolve practices for students in Big Rapids, Michigan, but across the country. And so, as always, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you for coming on the podcast.

0:33:38.8 SV: Thank you for having us.

0:33:38.9 JB: Thank you, Linda.

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