Student studying on UNM campus
A UNM student finds a quiet spot to study.

Will the skills faculty members teach students today be what they need to navigate a work life that constantly shifts beneath their feet? That’s a hard call.

George Kuh, a consultant hired by the UNM Office of the Provost to help improve the graduation rate, uses statistics to drive home the chaotic job environment students are facing. Universities once were a repository of wisdom, the place to learn how to engineer a bridge or paint and draw or learn about the ecology of the natural world. Today students need to know where to find information and how to use it effectively because the work environment they are facing demands that they be agile learners.

  • Today's students will have 10 - 14 jobs by age 38.
  • More than 1/3 of the U.S. Labor Force changes jobs annually.
  • Half of workers in the U.S. have been with their company less than five years.
  • Every year more than 30 million Americans are working in jobs that did not exist in the previous year.

When Chaouki Abdallah became the chief academic officer of UNM in the spring of 2011, he chose student success as his primary priority. He wanted to increase the graduation rate of undergraduate students. For years, the graduation rate at UNM has hovered just below 50 percent.  Abdallah, an Electrical and Computer Engineer with a research background in control systems, took a systematic approach to adjusting the odds for students.

“Everything we do in this office is related to student success,” he says. “It is our job to build the support structure so that students have ways to get back on track if they experience problems in their pursuit of a degree. At the same time, it is our hope to build that support structure so that it works as efficiently as possible for the institution.”

The Office of the Provost spent the academic year of 2012-2013 working with the John N Gardner Institute for Excellence of Undergraduate Education and George Kuh a scholar and consultant who founded the National Survey of Student Engagement to understand the kinds of change UNM needed to make. Administrators and faculty members have spent hours carefully examining why some students leave the university before they complete their degree. 

The effort was organized around nine different committees, called Dimensions in reference to the multi-dimensional approach that the Gardner Institute takes to address student success.The last Dimension Committee submitted a final report in March of 2013 and the Office of the Provost began constructing programs to keep students engaged and on track. This year those programs, under the overall name of “Foundations of Excellence” are deployed and positioned to make academic life easier for students. The success of the FoE programs is monitored by the First Year Steering Committee chaired by Associate Provost Greg Heileman and Dean of the UNM Honors College and University College Kate Krause.

For students just entering the university these programs can help them find a foothold.

  • Developmental Course Reform – In the past, students were placed into English, reading and math classes based on the ACT or SAT scores. For some students, this meant taking pre-college, non-credit bearing courses taught by CNM instructors on UNM’s campus. This year for the first time, all entering UNM students are placed in credit-bearing English courses designed to provide the appropriate level of support for student success. For students who don’t agree with their initial assignment in math courses there is a way to challenge the placement. COMPASS is a placement test for students whose ACT or SAT SCORES place them in pre-college courses. In prior years, students could take the COMPASS exam only once. Now students who want to challenge their math placement can take the COMPASS exam up to three times before the start of a semester. UNM is currently revising how exams are used to place students into mathematics and statistics courses.
  • Freshman Learning Communities – FLCs have been offered at UNM for more than a decade. These learning communities combine two courses, often courses that meet core curriculum requirements, taken back to back by the same small group of students. The small enrollment course provides more individualized attention, and the linking introduces students to the idea that what they are learning in their classes can be applied to other classes. These courses require more writing along with a common intellectual experience. There are 60 of these courses available this year, a doubling of FLC offerings in prior years.
  • Themed Residence Floors – There are 15 options for students who want to live in an environment with other people interested in a particular area. The options range from a Global Focus to engineering, fine arts and pre health professionals.
  • Lobo Reading Experience – Kuh recommends that students have a common intellectual experience. This year’s book is Garbology and is available in the UNM book store. Students hear about the book in student orientation and the English Department and other first year courses are using the book. Campus activities based on the “Garbology” themes are planned.

Students at UNM are beginning to notice that the university is a lot more involved in their academic experience. The Office of the Provost is just completing an advisement redesign that has reassigned student advisors within University College and the degree granting colleges to reduce the student-advisor ratio. The redesign makes it easier for students to quickly meet with advisors as needed.

For students who are in their initial semesters and are ready to map their progress as they move toward a specific degree there are a number of support programs.

  • Lobo Achieve – This is a software system that allows students and their advisors to actively communicate. Faculty members enter student progress in the system and when a student falters in coursework or misses too many classes, the advisor is alerted to check in with the student to determine whether there is a problem, and to work on solutions.
  •  Degree Maps - This website is the gateway to the degree mapping software at UNM. Student advisors use the software to make sure students are taking the courses they need for a specific major in the correct order. Students can use it to chart their own course to the degree they want. Since the website was launched last spring there have been more than 1 milliong page views. UNM Director of University Advisement Vanessa Harris says the website students have accessed the software more than 150,000 times. In this video she shows a student how to use degree mapping software.

  • Student Success Centers – One center in the University Advisement and Enrichment Center and another in the freshman housing in Casas del Rio help students with advisement, coaching and connection to campus resources.
  • CAPS – The Center for Academic Program Support provides tutors for any subject in both undergraduate and graduate courses.
  • Undergraduate Research Matching System – This website matches students who are interested in research with faculty members who are seeking students to work with them on a project. This allows students the opportunity to work closely with faculty members.
  • Community Engagement – UNM offers a wide variety of experiences for students and members of the community who want to engage with the university to meet local needs. Students can apprentice with community leaders in local organizations through the Community Engagement Portal. In addition, various schools and colleges offer curriculum related experiences such as the Design and Planning Assistance Center (DPAC) services offered by the School of Architecture and Planning. Students in the DPAC program deliver design and planning services to low income communities throughout the state. In another example, the Rio Grande Storm Water Quality Team in the Department of Biology does educational outreach to teach students about storm water runoff in Albuquerque. 
  • Another change adjusts the minimum number of credit hours for a bachelor’s degree from 128 to 120. Curriculum experts examined the number of credit hours the university has required in the past and realized the extensive requirements made it very difficult for students to graduate in four years. Schools and Colleges were required to review their core curriculums to bring them in line with the university goal of 120 hours.

Another way to attack the problem of keeping students in class is to improve the quality of the teaching. The Center for Teaching Excellence has replaced OSET and continues OSET’s practice of providing help for faculty and graduate teaching assistants who want to learn more about how to teach in the classroom.

  • Center for Teaching Excellence – This new center has teaching fellowships and opportunities for scholarship on teaching and learning. By 2015 the center plans to offer a graduate certificate in college teaching for graduate students looking for ways to improve their teaching skills.
  • Writing Intensive Courses – The Office of the Provost has assembled a committee to explore a possible Writing across the Curriculum program. The committee is defining writing intensive courses and will work to assure all degree programs have them.

The First Year Steering Committee’s subcommittee on High Impact Practices is currently conducting a survey of all UNM programs and intervention as a way to identify practices that are making the largest impact on students.  The next phase of their work will match individual students with specific practices. The goal is to keep students engaged with their coursework and interested in moving toward a degree.

This year the Office of the Provost is beginning to measure which of the initiatives are most helpful in keeping students engaged in pursuit of a degree.

The Association of Commerce and Industry bills itself as the Chamber of Commerce for New Mexico. In a talk recently at UNM executive director of the association, Beverley McClure said it will take 160,000 new jobs in New Mexico to stabilize the economy. The problem is nobody can predict exactly which sector of the economy will supply those jobs. That means UNM students will have to be unusually agile at learning how to thrive in a chaotic work environment.