Almost 250 people representing 28 colleges and universities from six states attended the inaugural Skyhawk Regional Retention Summit held at the University of Tennessee at Martin on May 7-8. Attendees and facilitators brought perspectives from two and four-year, public and private, faith-based and state institutions to the discussion on student success and perseverance to graduation across the southeastern United States.
“Obviously, we want to deepen our understanding of the issues that hinder our students in persisting to graduation. That’s an incredibly simple statement with an incredibly complicated set of answers,” said Dr. Philip Acree Cavalier, UT Martin provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, when discussing the purpose of the summit. He said he also hopes the institutions in attendance will build networks and create partnerships with others based on the ideas presented during the various discussions.
“(This summit) is a lot bigger than we expected, but what it communicates is that, … in this region, we all have the same challenges, and we understand that those challenges don’t stop at the state lines,” Cavalier continued.
The main day of summit activities began May 8 with a welcome from UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver, who discussed the importance of developing relationships with each student and finding out what barriers may exist in their lives to keep them from completing their degrees. He then stressed the difference one faculty or staff member can make in the life of a struggling student by simply taking steps to help them overcome those barriers.
“That’s why we’re all here today. It’s our responsibility. We’re in this for the people business, but we’re really in this to help our students persist and succeed and graduate and contribute back,” he said.
Summit keynote speaker Dr. John Gardner, chief executive office of The Gardner Institute, spoke on the lessons institutions in the United States have learned about student success and retention in the past 50 years, focusing on the need to increase equity and opportunity for students of all backgrounds.
He presented data to show the nationwide decline in enrollment across higher education institutions at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels, and stressed the importance of reaching students during their first transition year into college, whether that be as traditional freshmen straight out of high school, as dual-enrollment students or as transfer students from another institution.
Gardner is nationally known in the education field as the founder of “The First-Year Experience” movement, which he says should focus on those areas of college life that are truly shared by all incoming students. These areas include introductory courses in the common curriculum as well as experiences with parking, dining services and registration, among others.
Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, spoke during the lunch hour and discussed changes needed in higher education in Tennessee. He highlighted several state institutions that have made changes to their orientation, registration and first-year experience processes with promising results and proposed ideas for new initiatives in other areas.
“(THEC) brought a tribe out here from our office because we want to learn from you. Nobody graduates from THEC. We want to support you all; we want to come to campus and find out how, as a coordinating agency, we can help you succeed,” Krause said.
Cavalier says the summit was a success overall, and plans are already underway to host a second event next May. For more information, contact the UT Martin Office of Academic Affairs at 731-881-7010.