Office of Public AffairsNews Bureau 662-325-3442Contact: Sasha Steinberg[email protected]April 13, 2016

MSU Pathfinders program plays key role in freshman retention efforts

Newswise — STARKVILLE, Miss.— For nearly two decades, Mississippi State’s Pathfinders program has played a vital role in improving freshman retention at the university.

Pathfinders director David McMillen said prior to the implementation of the program in 1998, 25 percent of the freshman class had an absence problem by the end of the fall semester.

A retired psychology professor serving as a research professor at the university’s Social Science Research Center, McMillen said the six-year graduation rate in those years averaged about 50 percent, and the freshman fall-semester GPA was about 2.5.

In the years since Pathfinders’ inception, the percent of freshmen with absence problems has decreased to about 7 percent, McMillen explained. The six-year graduation rate has increased to about 60 percent, and the freshman fall-semester GPA has risen to about 2.8.

“Research in social psychology has shown that small situation changes or interventions often lead to significant changes in behavior,” he said. “We believed that if we could significantly increase class attendance, then freshman grades, as well as retention and graduation rates, would improve.”After two years as an internal research project through the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President, university administrators made it possible for Pathfinders to become a continuing program.

Supported by research efforts conducted at MSU and other institutions of higher learning, Pathfinders has proven to be a cost-effective indicator of the difference in academic performance between continuing and non-continuing students.

“We have found that freshmen with four or more absences in one or more classes by midterm of the semester had an average first-year GPA of 1.8, while those who did not had an average first-year GPA of 2.9,” said McMillen, one of three SSRC employees who make up the Pathfinders leadership team.

Joining him are the program’s on-campus coordinator Ty Abernathy, an associate research professor at MSU’s Social Science Research Center, and SSRC associate research professor John F. Edwards. Abernathy also is affiliated with the university’s Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Foundations.Speaking on how the Pathfinders program works, Abernathy said when an instructor updates his or her class attendance in the university’s Banner system during the first six weeks of the semester, the names of freshmen with two or more absences in any single course will be sent to the Pathfinders team.Once the notification is received, a residence hall academic assistant—from a select group of nearly 20 whom Abernathy trains and supervises—will visit each student in the residence hall to hold a brief, positive discussion on class attendance.

Employed by the Division of Student Affairs’ housing and residence life department, each residence hall academic assistant then sends a follow-up email outlining the meeting.

Along with providing encouragement to consult instructors, the assistants provide information about on-campus resources, including the Math Domain, Holmes Cultural Diversity Center and university Writing and Learning centers.“Something that’s special about our campus is that 90 to 95 percent of our freshmen live on campus, so having that access helps us in making that initial contact,” Abernathy said, adding that Pathfinders communicate with the remaining five percent of off-campus students via phone or email. McMillen added that a nonconfrontational visit from a residence hall academic assistant can provide a student with the “wake-up call” he or she needs to begin moving in the right direction.

“The toughest thing about college for students may not necessarily be academics,” McMillen said. “It may be that they’re having difficulty adjusting to the role of personal responsibility and self-motivation that they need to succeed.”

McMillen and Abernathy attribute the program’s longtime success to ongoing cooperation and assistance from the Division of Student Affairs and its Department of Housing and Residence Life. They also expressed appreciation for the continued support of SSRC director Art Cosby.

“MSU’s Social Science Research Center is a very unique operation and has been a great place for us to conduct social impact research for Pathfinders,” McMillen said. “We’ve been able to help a lot of people over the years through this program.”

Julia Hodges, MSU interim provost and executive vice president, said the university’s analysis of a variety of factors related to student success in the classroom clearly indicates the importance of class attendance.“At MSU, we are dedicated to providing an environment in which our students have every opportunity to be successful,” Hodges said. “Our Pathfinders program has been very effective in identifying students who are placing themselves at risk academically by missing classes and providing some gentle intervention to get them back on track.”

The university’s freshman retention initiative recently was recognized with a gold 2016 Excellence Award in the Housing, Residence Life, Contracted Services, Judicial and related category presented by NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, the leading association for the advancement, health and sustainability of the student affairs profession.

In addition to the recent NASPA recognition, MSU’s Pathfinders program has been recognized with multiple awards. They include the Lee Noel-Randi Levitz Retention Excellence Award in 2003; MSU Alumni Faculty Recognition Award in 2004; and Southeastern Association of Housing Officers Housing and Academic Collaboration Award in 2013.

For more information about Pathfinders, visit Abernathy and McMillen also may be contacted at [email protected] and [email protected].

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