Cover Stories: Paving Pathways

April 5, 2018

Aerial shot of campusUndergraduates take many different journeys on campus, but one thing is certain—every new Spartan can succeed

By Nicole Geary

The spirit of Spartans Will has always applied to students. It is the belief that everyone who is admitted to Michigan State University has the ability to succeed on campus—no matter their race or socioeconomic background.

In the last five years, supporting new Spartans on the path to graduation has become a truly collective mission.

Partners all across campus, including the College of Education, are stepping up efforts to keep more undergraduate students on track, especially in their first year. By defining bold ideals for student success and finding innovative ways to meet those goals, MSU has gained attention as a leading model among large public research universities.

While it remains a central challenge, the university is beginning to close gaps in opportunity for lower-income, first-generation and under-represented students. Overall, the graduation rate has been stable or increasing—putting MSU above the national average. And the percentage of students facing first-time academic probation, a major barrier for future success, is shrinking.


MSU is one of 11 institutions across the country that are part of the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition working together to transform student outcomes through promising ideas.

The most significant and notable achievement at Michigan State has been establishing Engagement Centers in each of five residence hall areas—the Neighborhoods. Through highly collaborative teams of staff across multiple departments, each Neighborhood is now a hub for providing resources to the students who live there. For example, residents can meet with academic advisors, go to tutoring sessions, join student groups and see a healthcare provider all within their corner of campus.

More systems and policies are now in place, through the Neighborhoods and the colleges, to identify students who show signs of academic trouble and provide options for support. Academic advisors across campus are engaging in more proactive, early outreach to students. Faculty are helping to identify struggling students, and they are working together to make fundamental changes in curriculum and teaching, especially in core introductory classes.

In many aspects, successful students are helping fellow students more than ever in roles that honor them as important partners with professionals on campus.

“We are turning around the idea of considering students at risk,” said R. Sekhar Chivukula, MSU associate provost for undergraduate education. “It’s on us to create the learning environments and the support that they need … The College of Education is very much on board.”


College of Education researchers have helped lead and inform initiatives being implemented at the university level. Kristen Renn, professor of Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE), previously directed and was instrumental in realizing the vision for the Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative.

She is now associate dean of undergraduate studies for student success research. In this role, she oversees multiple studies focused on finding out what works at MSU, such as the Go Green Go 15 campaign.

College of Education faculty members John Yun and Barbara Schneider, along with alumnus Michael Broda, have studied the potential of a program at MSU designed to improve incoming students’ mindsets for success, particularly among first-generation and under-represented groups.

College advisors, faculty and administrators are supporting students in ways that are often dramatically different from decades before, and sometimes breaking ground in ways for others to follow.

For example, the College of Education Student Affairs Office was among the first on campus to create a peer academic advising program. This program gives College of Education students the ability to talk with a specially trained fellow student, not only a professional advisor, about their academic or social-emotional concerns (see below).

“I think we’re on the forefront for a lot of things,” said Kristy Dumont, assistant director for student affairs and one of three people currently leading university-wide workgroups to improve advising. “The resources are available. They’re here. The hardest part is getting students to use them.”

And it can be particularly important in the College of Education, where all of the undergraduate majors—Kinesiology, Athletic Training, Elementary Education and Special Education—have rigorous admission requirements beyond getting into MSU.

Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Susan Dalebout said the college is committed to helping every prospective student who declares one of those majors to become admissible to the major before they become juniors. (MSU requires students be admitted to a degree program by that point.)

Many programs and resources are offered by the college, including some before students begin their first semester.

In reality, not every student is able to meet requirements for College of Education majors. But every student can be successful at MSU, Dalebout says.

If students are unable to gain admission with the supports available, “we want to guide them to another major about which they can feel successful, excited and fulfilled. We look for alternative majors that align with their interests, talents and passion. We want to help before students have done irreparable damage to their academic prospects by eroding their GPA, accumulating too many repeat credits, and using up their financial aid.

“We want to set everyone on their best path to graduation as a Spartan.”

The following stories describe how the college supports undergraduate academic success on multiple fronts. 


Regina DeLoach

The first year at MSU wasn’t easy for Regina DeLoach. But the Flint resident felt more prepared than many of her peers. By the time she started her first fall semester, she had already spent four weeks on campus during the summer, not only learning about MSU but actually earning college credit.

DeLoach was in the first group of students to participate in Early Success Scholars (ESS). The program represents an expansion of the College of Education’s longstanding Summer High School Scholars program, which serves rising high school sophomores, juniors and seniors preparing for college with an interest in education or kinesiology careers.

ESS gives already admitted students a more in-depth, rigorous introduction during the critical transition between high school and college. They begin taking the Teacher Preparation Program’s required TE 250 course (Human Diversity, Power and Opportunity in Social Institutions) in the summer and continue together in the fall. They also work together on an action research project under the direction of faculty members Terry Flennaugh and Vaughn Watson.

“I had only been to Michigan State twice, so I was excited to be going a month early and taking classes with people in my major,” said DeLoach, who plans to become an elementary teacher.

When she faced academic probation fall semester and then pneumonia in the spring, she turned to her ESS friends and the Program Coordinator Marini Lee. She also leaned on a peer coach she had been paired with through the MSU Student Success Scholars program, a part of the Neighborhoods initiative. DeLoach said she felt more comfortable interacting with other faculty members and advisors because of the experience.

Last summer, she was excited to work at the university’s Academic Orientation Program (AOP) to help welcome new students—especially those from Flint—and “tell them the things I wished I knew.”

This year, her grades are improving and she is in good academic standing.

“I think ESS helped me the most because I already had connections I could use when I did feel lost on campus,” said DeLoach.


The ESS program is the latest development in the college’s efforts to create a “pathway to promise” specifically for under-represented student groups and those focused on teaching and improving education in urban areas.

Since 2003, the network of programs led by Associate Dean of Support Services and Engagement Sonya Gunnings-Moton has successfully influenced hundreds of students to attend and complete their degrees at MSU; several have returned to earn master’s and doctoral degrees.

“ESS is a retention effort, in recognition of the university-wide efforts to promote the persistence of all students for graduation here at MSU,” said Gunnings-Moton. “We have learned that early and sustained engagement is key.”


Maddie Ebbing waves a Spartan flag.

Maddie Ebbing soaks in a moment during her education abroad trip to Australia.

Kinesiology major Maddie Ebbing had always planned to attend Michigan State, following in her family members’ footsteps.

When her grades in her first semester fell below a 2.0, she felt like an outsider. She was required to complete additional work online and attend a meeting with her STAR program advisor (see below) before she could enroll in more classes.

“That’s when I realized that I needed to step it up,” Ebbing said. “I was really scared because I felt like I was failing. But the STAR program helped me because, in my mind, I could piece together how I would go on in my college career.”

She learned where she could go to tutoring in her own dorm, strategies for retaking courses and how to better manage her time. And, instead of shying away from advice, she leaned in to her growing relationship with College of Education Advisor Becky Olsen, whom she continues to meet with a few times every semester.

“I would not be anywhere if she wasn’t my advisor,” said Ebbing, who is now a senior preparing for graduation. “She is just so honest. She told me that the way my GPA was going, I wouldn’t be able to go to nursing school. That made me want to work harder.”

Ebbing never returned to academic probation. Now, she is focused on finishing strong and will graduate in May 2018.

“I feel confident that I will be able to get into nursing school somewhere.”

STAR: Success Training for Academic Recovery

What is STAR?

STAR is a required, sometimes called intrusive, advising program that helps students on academic probation gain the necessary skills to return to and maintain good academic standing until they graduate.

The College of Education was the first to partner with the three core colleges (Arts and Letters, Natural Science and Social Science) by implementing STAR beginning in 2014.

What constitutes probation?

A cumulative grade point average below 2.0. Only 36 percent of MSU students who are placed on probation at the end of their first semester graduate from MSU within six years.

What happens?

Students are notified and a hold is placed on their account, preventing them from enrolling in courses. STAR students must:

  1. Complete four online modules and a Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) plan to reflect on why they are on probation and how they will develop a network for success.
  2. Meet with an academic advisor to go over action plan and sign STAR program agreement.
  3. Attend at least two follow-up meetings with advisor. Complete a Degree Completion Plan with advisor.
  4. Complete Student Success Reports with each instructor about where they stand in the course.

“It can be intense,” said Advisor Kristy Dumont. “It’s meant to mimic what you do as a successful student … and hopefully the behaviors change the following year.”


Trey Hester

For Kinesiology majors, anatomy is “usually the hardest class they have had yet,” says Associate Professor Karin Pfeiffer. And it can be a breaking point. The course, KIN 216, is one of five prerequisites in which students must earn a 2.0 or higher in order to be admitted to the major. More than 200 are enrolled in KIN 216 each semester.

When the instructors noticed how many students needed to repeat the class, they turned to fellow students. They asked Kinesiology majors who have taken the course—and ideally struggled with it themselves—to serve as mentors.

Trey Hester, an aspiring dentist from Atlanta, managed to raise his grade from a 1.5 to a 3.5 when he retook KIN 216 with the help of a peer mentor. With others in the program, he also met biweekly with Pfeiffer and Advisor Jennifer Watson. The following semester, they asked him to switch roles.

“It was great because the students asked me, ‘How did you achieve success?’” said Hester, who graduates in spring 2018. “I was there to let them know that they are more than a factor of their GPA, to reassure them that they are here at MSU for a reason.”

Of the 39 students who have participated in the mentoring program so far, 70 percent passed the course the second time, with many earning a 3.0 or higher.

“It helps to hear from someone else who’s had the experience,” said Pfeiffer. “Anyone can email a teaching assistant, but I don’t think those who are struggling take advantage of that like they do when they are paired up. There’s more accountability.”


This year, about 440 first-year students across campus are participating in what’s known as the Spartan Success Scholars program. As part of the initiative, they are paired with a specially trained student role model who acts as a coach.

The College of Education has long been a partner in the program, but leaders wanted to take it a step further. They wanted the coaches who work with College of Education students to be embedded within the college’s Student Affairs Office, inside Erickson Hall.

So, after months of additional training, the Spartan Success coaches also became peer advisors during spring 2017. They now work alongside the professional advisors, giving all students in the college the option of speaking with a peer about scheduling, course selection and many other topics.

“Our idea is to have students who know a lot about our majors who can really help fellow students,” said Mike Haslett, advisor and coordinator of the program. “The more people we have trained to have these conversations, the more time slots we have available and the better service we can provide for our students.”

The four Spartan Success coaches who were trained to become peer advisors in the college have continued on in that role during the 2017-18 year. In addition, the Student Affairs Office hired four more College of Education students to serve as coaches for Spartan Success Scholars with majors in the college.

Beyond that, the office also has on the staff two students who act as career planning advisors and one peer tutor. The tutor, Maura Jones, works with Spartan Success Scholars who need help with mathematics courses. She also helps peers preparing to take or retake the SAT in order to apply for the Teacher Preparation Program.

The students can attest to the challenges of being a College of Education student because they have shared the same experiences.

“People feel like ‘OK, I’m just one out of 500 in this lecture. Where do I go, where do I turn?’” said Kyrah McPherson, peer advisor and senior in Kinesiology. “I think it’s really important that we have these programs at a big university to help people navigate and find what works for them … because it’s very possible to make this school feel small, like a close community.”


Students listen during a Math 103 lesson.

College of Education students take an extra class, taught in part by students planning to become math teachers, to help them succeed in Math 103, a required course.

First-year seminars can help students transition to life in college—and prevent some of the shortfalls that lead to trouble.

Since 2015, the College of Education has offered various forms of these seminars, typically one-credit courses in the fall semester, in ways that are tailored to the college’s majors and taught by academic advisors.

Sarah Berke, now a sophomore in special education, took a first-year seminar alongside fellow aspiring teachers. The course introduced her to resources and a small group of people with whom she felt comfortable being candid—especially about the rigors of applying to the college’s Teacher Preparation Program.

“It was good to know I wasn’t alone in what I was stressed about,” Berke said. “You can talk about what’s going on in your life and your classes, and get ideas about how to solve them.”


A graphic describing the details of graduation rates.

Related links

Higher Education Today featured the MSU Neighborhoods.