Student success has emerged as UALR’s top priority. Certainly, the institution has been involved in student success initiatives for many years; however, state and national agendas, as well as UALR’s record of weak retention and graduation rates, necessitate focused attention on the success of our students. As a public institution dedicated to meeting the needs of our community, state, and nation, UALR is responding.
In December 2006, UALR made a commitment to ensure student preparedness for academic success in rigorous postsecondary studies by adopting revised freshman admission standards. These admission standards require a cumulative high school GPA of at least a 2.5 and a 21 ACT composite or equivalent score. UALR admissions personnel undertake a thorough review of high school transcripts and college admission test scores of students who do not meet these admission standards. Students may be individually considered for admission on the basis of high school coursework attempted, high school coursework successfully completed, and overall demonstration of preparedness. Students who are not academically prepared are deferred admission and, after successful demonstration of postsecondary academic progress elsewhere, may be considered for future admission to UALR. The admission standards are a clear example that UALR recognizes that preparation is necessary for collegiate success. Continued assessment of the admission standards demonstrates that UALR is attracting better prepared students. The first-time freshman ACT average for UALR increased from a 19 ACT composite in Fall 2007, to a 20 ACT composite in Fall 2008, to a 21 ACT composite in Fall 2009, and to a 22 ACT composite in Fall 2010.
In spring 2009, UALR adopted the Computerized Adaptive Placement, Assessment, and Support System (COMPASS) as an appropriate assessment tool for admission. This instrument is advantageous for UALR students, for, when a student completes COMPASS, diagnostic testing is available to identify areas of weakness, allowing a student to concentrate on the areas of identified deficiencies in order to build skills in preparation for a subsequent retest with COMPASS. Implementation of COMPASS has been a particular benefit for GED students.
Retention and Graduation Rates
Among the biggest challenges facing UALR are its retention and graduation rates, both of which are low. UALR’s full-time freshman-to-sophomore retention rate in Fall 2008 was 62%, placing UALR 13th among the 15 peer institutions identified in UALR Fast Forward. UALR’s six-year graduation rate for the 2002- 2008 cohort of first-time, full-time freshmen was 20.6%, the lowest among the four-year institutions in Arkansas and the lowest among the 15 peer institutions. While UALR does face some specific challenges in regard to retention and graduation rates because of its large number of nontraditional students who work and have families, the fact that UALR’s peer institutions, which have similar student clienteles, have stronger rates indicates that the institution can and must improve.
In Fall 2007, Chancellor Joel Anderson asked Provost Belcher and Vice Chancellor Charles Donaldson to review the findings of several UALR retention and student success studies conducted in recent years to identify retention strategies of particular promise for the University in its efforts to improve retention performance. In his December 2007 Retention Summit, Chancellor Anderson charged the university with implementing the six retention initiatives identified. The following is a status report of the implementation process.
- Mandatory new-student orientation. Status: accomplished. The new-student orientation program has been expanded to include an online orientation program for those whose work and family schedules preclude participation in face-to-face sessions.
- Required first-year experience course. Status: in progress. The Faculty Senate has passed legislation requiring that all first-time, full-time freshmen enroll in a first-year experience course beginning in Fall 2011. Appropriate first-year experience courses will be created and identified under the aegis of the Undergraduate Council during the 2010-2011 academic year.
- Ensuring adequate seats to accommodate students needing developmental courses. Status: accomplished. Further, the university modified the developmental program to include intrusive advising and mentoring and learning community opportunities which incorporate PEAW 1300, a first-year experience course. Early comparisons demonstrate that students in this revised developmental program were retained from Fall 2009 to Spring 2010 at a rate higher than the retention rate for all first-time, full-time freshmen. Clearly this program is working. The developmental program operates under the supervision of the Academic Success Center.
- Posting mid-term grades in all 1000- and 2000-level courses. Status: accomplished. The Faculty Senate passed legislation requiring all faculty teaching these courses to communicate mid-term grades to their students; thus, the legislation ensures some early warning of problems to students and course faculty. However, since posting grades in BANNER, the university’s data system, was not made a requirement, advisers may or may not have access to these data and therefore knowledge of a student’s academic problems. Without such knowledge, advisers do not know when a student needs extra support in order to successfully complete a course. Recording of these mid-term grades in BANNER needs to be required.
- Strengthening advising and early declaration of a major (two retention initiatives being jointly implemented). Status: in progress. Because 70 percent of UALR students have transfer credit, the first step in implementing these two retention initiatives was to establish a transfer office to articulate transfer core credit effectively and consistently, a development which freed professional staff and faculty to focus on advising students on major requirements, and providing academic and professional mentoring. The Office of Transfer Student Services (OTSS) was established in April 2009 and, in its first year of operation, served 3039 students, a figure which includes articulating 5825 transfer adjustments for 1797 students. OTSS is also responsible for maintaining updated articulation agreements with Arkansas community colleges.
Another priority for implementation of these two initiatives has been completing development of the Degree Audit, an electronic function which will facilitate the advisors’ work with students. Another improvement on the horizon is the implementation of a process by which departments will be able to approve students interested in their programs as pre-majors for advising purposes, thus facilitating earlier student contact with an advisor in the major department. Because many of these developments represent significant process changes, the task force leading implementation of these initiatives has created a training program for academic advisors to include information on using the Degree Audit, accessing advisor support systems, accessing student support services, and advising best practices.
In Summer 2010, Chancellor Anderson appointed a Retention Committee to propose an organizational structure that would result in an improved graduation rate. The Retention Committee recommended the creation of an Associate Vice Chancellor position designed to be the campus-wide champion for student success. While student success is everyone’s responsibility, the person in this position will lead the charge. The Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success will report to the Provost.
Campus Resources and Assistance
UALR offers a variety of resources and continues to enhance a campus culture and environment designed to assist students as they pursue their educational goals.
In response to the Chancellor’s six retention initiatives effort, the Faculty Senate granted authority to the Academic Success Center to overhaul the developmental program, beginning with developmental reading and writing. The Center established a contractual probation program that requires early completion of the developmental courses before proceeding into regular course work, intrusive advising, participation in learning communities, and completion of the First-Year Experience course. Early results show that the probationary contracts are successful in helping to retain students. This program has initially been limited to new students, but plans are currently underway to expand the program to students who go on academic probation. Intrusive advising and a prescriptive approach have shown great promise for the future.
UALR also offers skills centers which assist students with specific challenges in mathematics, writing, and speech communication. The Department of Mathematics and Statistics has opened a second math lab in the last few years, allowing the two labs to concentrate on the distinct needs of specific groups of students. Mac I is a lab designed to help any student with math in any course, whether in the math department or not, and provides both computerized assistance and peer tutoring. The Mac II is a separate lab whose primary function is to work with developmental students as they navigate the ALEKS system, a self-paced computerized approach to developmental math. Students who complete the ALEKS system are successful in completing the developmental courses and college algebra. Another such center, the University Writing Center instructs its clients on basic computer literacy and collaborates with them on various writing projects. Finally the Communication Skill Center (CSC) works specifically to help students on campus to develop communication competence in a variety of areas, including active listening, impression management, presentation development, and assertive communication. Additionally, the CSC works closely with students who have high communication apprehension by providing them with personalized anxiety management strategies and training. Finally, the CSC serves as a tutor center for students enrolled in SPCH 1300, the university’s general education requirement for communication.
The Division of Educational and Student Services has created and sponsors the African-American Male Initiative (AAMI), a student success program designed to empower, support, and assist African- American male students to increase retention and graduation rates among this, one of the most at-risk populations on our campus. High expectations, early interventions, and intrusive advising and interactions form the operational base of the program. The program mantra affirms “Failure is not an option!” The AAMI program design is multi-faceted. AAMI offers students the opportunity to participate in both professional and peer mentoring. AAMI student participants are assigned peer success advisors (PSAs), upperclassmen who have excelled academically and exemplified strong leadership skills. The PSAs work with their assigned students throughout their first year at the university. Further, student participants develop informal and formal mentoring relationships with professionals including faculty, staff and university alumni. AAMI designs and presents programs to assist students with making the transition to college, understanding the institutional milieu, developing the necessary academic skills, and achieving success both inside the classroom and out.
The Chancellor’s Leadership Corps (CLC) is a comprehensive program designed to develop and enhance the skills necessary to prepare each participant for assuming leadership positions on campus and beyond. CLC scholars receive $8,000 per year in scholarship aid, renewable up to $32,000 based on performance. UALR expanded the CLC program in Fall 2010 from 50 to 100 scholars and incoming scholars are required to live on campus. CLC scholars are required to complete 15 hours of service per semester during the fall and spring.
In 2010, UALR began the development process for a new four-story building designed to bring the most often-used student services into one convenient location centrally located on campus and connected to the Donaghey Student Center by a pedestrian bridge. Student service offices in the Student Services One-Stop Building will include Veterans Affairs, Counseling and Career Planning Services, the Bursar’s Office, Admissions and Financial Aid, Records and Registration, Academic Advising, Cooperative Education, Transfer Student Services, and Testing and Student Life Research. By physically locating the services in one location, not only will students have convenient access to services, but also close proximity of the various services to one another will facilitate collaboration and partnership among the services themselves, further enhancing the student experience.
Building Campus Community
UALR Fast Forward clearly prioritizes the university’s commitment to a student-centered educational environment. A primary objective included strengthening the sense of community on campus, and the intervening years bear witness to the university’s efforts related to this objective. Several important examples follow.
Additional student housing. One of the most significant contributions to building a campus community has been the construction of additional student housing. Historically a commuter institution, UALR opened its first residence hall in 1992. The university opened two apartment-style residence halls and a community building known as University Commons in Fall 2007. These private bedroom apartments have provided campus housing for an additional 320 residents. The residence halls have been at maximum capacity since Fall 2008, and there is a waiting list of students hoping to secure housing there. The Commons Building includes structured meeting space as well as several general socializing areas, and provides another programming venue.
The growth in the number of campus residents has been accompanied by growth in leadership opportunities, student work options, and structured service activities which have facilitated a living/learning environment that has enriched the collegiate experience and enhanced the vitality of the campus life program.
UALR is on track to add another 350 beds with the opening of two more residence halls in 2011. These pod-style units will emphasize community development among small groups of freshmen residents sharing lounges and study space. Designed to complement the other residence halls, the addition of this new housing option will provide a strong balance of facilities encouraging retention on campus as students mature and progress through their academic programs.
Bailey Alumni and Friends Center. Since opening in 2002, the Bailey Alumni and Friends Center has become a hub of activity for UALR’s community. The Bailey Center hosts over 200 events annually which includes a wide range of functions including departmental advisory board meetings, donor receptions, and student organization gatherings. Additionally, it serves as home to the UALR Alumni Association, the Office of Community Engagement, and the University District Development Corporation. Thus, the Bailey Center is not only a catalyst for building the campus community, but also a facility which bridges the institution’s internal and external communities.
UALR Athletics. With the opening of the 5,600-seat Jack Stephens Center in November 2005, UALR Basketball returned to campus for the first time in 30 years. Longtime Little Rock businessman and philanthropist Jackson T. Stephens donated $22.4 million to the construction of the facility. Measuring 149,000 square feet, the Jack Stephens Center features a full-court practice gym named after UALR alumnus Derek Fisher, an academic support center complete with 23 computer terminals, a first-class weight room, an athletic training room, locker rooms for basketball and volleyball, and a NIKE team store. In addition, the arena houses the offices for the men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball coaches, as well as the athletics administration and support staff. In addition to sporting events, the Jack Stephens Center also hosts numerous campus and community events, including UALR commencement exercises and several high school graduations, thus bringing families and potential students to campus. Like the Bailey Center, then, the Jack Stephens Center serves both as a key player in building campus community and as an outreach arm of the university to the external community.
UALR will begin construction during the 2010-2011 year of a new Recreation and Sports Complex for track and field and soccer. The facility will provide a home for the seven UALR sports which currently train and play at off-campus facilities as far as a 25-mile round trip from campus. The new facility will also enhance intramural athletics opportunities.
These new facilities are providing appropriate homes for UALR’s sports programs and their excellent student-athletes who achieve at a high level not only on the fields of play, but in the classroom as well. UALR has over 180 student-athletes that compete in fifteen sports. Collectively this group has a combined grade point average of 3.24 with 65 percent earning a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or better. Currently UALR Athletics boasts an 89 percent freshman graduation rate for all full-time entering freshmen who remained at UALR and used four seasons of eligibility, a rate measured over a ten-year period.
UALR’s teams and student-athletes have experienced impressive athletic success as well. Women’s basketball has quickly entered the national scene. In 2010 – only 11 years after the reinstatement of women’s basketball, Coach Joe Foley and the women’s basketball team made their debut in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the second round after defeating Georgia Tech. Men’s basketball, under Coach Steve Shields, has won four conference division championships in the last seven years.
UALR’s men’s cross country won the Sun Belt Conference championship in both 2007 and 2010. Women’s cross country won the conference championship in 2005. In 2007, student-athlete Whitney Kerth won the Sun Belt Conference individual championship in women’s cross country. In addition, Kerth received the prestigious Academic All-American award twice while playing at UALR.
Men’s and women’s golf have produced two individual conference champions. In 2005, Patrick Sullivan represented the men’s program as the individual Sun Belt Conference champion. Mallory Fraiche followed in 2009 as the women’s individual conference champion.
Finally, the indoor and outdoor track and field programs have seen numerous individual championships since 2004. Twenty-one UALR student-athletes have won conference championships in men’s and women’s competition. Among these is Chris Johnson who was honored as a two-time individual Sun Belt Conference champion in 2005. Johnson went on to place sixth in the nation at the NCAA Championship in the 100-meter event.