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In Missouri, a Student Success Guarantee

By Reyna Gobel

How one college turned a public revelation of failure into an opportunity to help its entire student body.

Every college has its share of struggling students. But rarely are those struggles made as public as they were in Missouri in 2010 when a local journalism school published an article that detailed the experiences of several students who flunked out of Missouri State University-West Plains.

Embarrassed by the story and the portrayal of the college and its students, West Plains Chancellor Drew A. Bennett and his staff launched the Education Guarantee program, which allows students who meet predetermined academic requirements to retake courses for free if they earn a grade of D or F.

Who is eligible: Qualifying students must be enrolled at the college full time and take no more than 50 percent of their courses online. Students cannot have more than two absences per class. Students must turn in all homework and in-class assignments, meet with their instructors outside of class, visit their academic advisers, and use free tutoring services three times during the semester. Students who meet these critieria and who are not enrolled in the college’s nursing and respiratory care program can retake for free any class in which they earned a D or an F (and for which their full-term GPA was less than 2.0).

How the guarantee was developed: Bennett met with the college’s administrative council and sought faculty input on the qualities and actions that contributed to student success. Feedback was collected by email, in conference calls and in person. Among the suggestions for helping struggling student were improved in-class attendance, time with advisers and professors, and more robust tutoring services for struggling students.

The roll out: A communications strategy to inform students and other stakeholders about the guarantee was immediately organized. Professors included a document entitled “10 Steps to Success” in the syllabus for every eligible course. Bennett donned a cap and gown and spoke at student orientations to emphasize the importance of completion and the benefits of the guarantee program. Many Missouri State-West Plains students are first-generation college students. Often, their parents don’t know what is required to succeed in college, Bennett says. The hope is that expectations become clear through orientations.

So far, administrators say the approach is working. The number of free tutoring hours offered through the guarantee program has more than doubled and administrators say refunds are rarely issued.

Bennett offers four tips for colleges considering similar guarantee programs:

  1. Use faculty input. Remember, they’re the ones who’ll be tasked with sharing the policy with students, either vocally or in their syllabi.
  2. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Just because your college has never created a program like this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Weigh the risks against the benefits.
  3. Don’t lower standards. It’s tempting to lower academic standards to avoid handing out too many refunds at the end of the semester. Resist this temptation. All students should be graded fairly, according to the standards of the college. No exceptions.
  4. Include parents. If parents know what is required to achieve success in college, they are more likely to be supportive of their children’s efforts.

What do you think? Can colleges guarantee success? Tell us in the Comments?

Reyna Gobel

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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