The University of Southern Mississippi’s fall 2020 enrollment reached a six-year high, and university leaders are attributing much of that growth to retention initiatives, including those programs housed within the Center for Student Success on the university’s Hattiesburg campus.
CSS has a variety of programs that assist students from freshmen to seniors. These programs, which target first-year students, sophomores and transfer students, are designed to develop skills necessary for academic success and build community among students. In addition, the center offers support for parents and family members of Southern Miss students through the Parent and Family Association because they feel that parents and family members are their partners in student success.
“We are so appreciative of the community approach to student success,” explained Amy Chasteen, executive vice provost. “Students, their families and the university community have all worked in concert to support our new initiatives and collaborate to meet the needs of our student body, which is to the benefit of all.”
Katie McBride, CSS director, agrees.
“University leaders have been very focused on and supportive of student retention programs,” McBride said. “That has helped us do the job we need to do for students, and it has improved the university as a whole … as we saw with this year’s enrollment figures.”
McBride said a hurdle to student retention is the need to improve academic skills crucial for success in college. That’s one reason CSS collaborated with others on campus to create ACES living-learning communities. These communities bring together populations of students that are either first-generation college students or who have similar majors that are traditionally more difficult. In these communities, students live together in the same residence hall, take a set of courses together in the fall and spring semesters, and benefit from additional programs and mentoring through CSS, Housing and Residence Life and their academic colleges.
“Living and learning communities have been a national best practice for a long time in student retention,” McBride noted. “Being able to get them connected early on, plugged into resources, and connecting with their fellow students and communities is really, really important.”
USM also has the Jump Scholars Program, which boasts retention rates that are 10-12% above the average for a freshman class at USM. This program brings students to campus for an intersession course prior to the start of the fall semester, enabling students to both earn class credit and get adjusted to college early in their career.
Before fall starts, they learn to navigate classes and campus resources, and they get to know faculty and staff in offices across campus so there are familiar faces for support.
“When their true fall semester begins, they’re ready for it,” McBride said of the Jump Scholars. “College brings a lot of unfamiliarity, and that can be daunting for an 18-year-old, so this program makes that transition as seamless as possible so that the student wants to stay at USM because they end up feeling comfortable and view their time here as worthwhile.”
CSS also has seen tremendous growth in their programs for sophomores as well as transfer students. It serves as the advising office for the Transfer Student Association – the only transfer-specific student organization on campus – and is now offering a peer mentoring program for new transfer students. McBride notes, however, that while the bulk of the center’s work is focused on specific student populations, any student who needs extra assistance with school or the transition to college is welcomed to visit the office.
“We are serving a much broader swath of the student body than I think we have in the past. I credit our campus partners for that. They refer students to our office when they see that they need a little extra support,” McBride said. “The reality is, there are students who don’t really fit any of those demographics but can still meet with us. Anyone can come in and set up a success appointment and talk about skills like time management, improving studying skills or critical thinking skills.”
The Center for Student Success is opening a new space on the first floor of Cook Library this December.