MSU Today with Russ White

Spartans Athletic Director Bill Beekman welcomes Mark Largent to this edition of MSU Today. Largent is the associate provost for undergraduate education, dean of undergraduate studies, and a professor in the Department of History at Michigan State University.

Show Notes

“You can tell two things from the length of my title,“ says Largent. “The associate provost and dean of undergraduate education's responsibility is to coordinate the undergraduate experience, especially in and around the classroom, across the 169 majors in our 17 different degree granting colleges. My job is, from the central unit, like the federal government, to help coordinate all the activities that go on across the college campus related to undergraduate education and to create a more coherent and seamless experience for our students because 70 percent of them change their majors from the time they start to the time they finish. About half of them change them more than once.

“That's not really a problem unless they're doing it into their third and fourth years. And in fact, as soon as they change their majors in their first and second years, they tend to have really good outcomes. They tend to persist and graduate as they're exploring and finding their way and discovering their purposes and passions. And then we coordinate with all the other things that happen that are different from going to class versus going to college. Going to college consists of a lot more than going to class. Students only spend about 15 percent of their time in class. The other 85 percent of their waking hours are spent in college.

“All of the co-curricular and extracurricular things and everything that happens in the residence halls and everything that's part of the overall student experience falls to my office to help coordinate, make sense of, and ensure that our students are given the best opportunity to learn, thrive, and graduate.”

Beekman asks Largent how MSU defines student success.

“That 15 percent does understate the academic and curricular investments that students have to make in their time. For every hour that a student spends in class, the expectation is that they spend two to three hours preparing for class or working on assignments and projects. So you're really looking at one hour of class time leading to three or four hours overall. And so suddenly that 15 percent is now closer to 60 percent of their time spent on academic pursuits. And then the rest of their time is spent working jobs and participating in sports and co-curricular and extracurricular activities. So that overall suite of things is a really critical part of what we think of when we talk about student success.

“The old definition of student success was that a student was successful as measured by the things that go on their transcript. So student success was just a student getting good grades. It was simply that. In the 21st century, both professionally and colloquially, when we talk about student success, we're actually talking about the ability of an institution to support the students that it matriculates so they can learn, thrive, and graduate. Student success in the 20th century was really getting good grades. Student success in the 21st century is a measure of the institution and whether your institution is designed to support your students. And so when we look at the persistence and graduation rates across the country, on average, half of the students that start college will not finish. It's an astoundingly low rate. Fifty percent of the students who start working on a college degree never finish it. But then when you go to a place like the Ivy League, approximately 95 to 96 percent of the students that start finish.

“When we started this effort, we were at about 77 percent of our students. We were in the top half of the Big Ten. Seventy seven percent of our students who started here finished at Michigan State. About another 10 percent started at Michigan State and finished someplace else. And sometimes that was because they decided that their purposes and their passions were in one of the really few areas in which Michigan State didn't have a major. So for example if you wanted to get a degree in aeronautics and become a pilot, we don't happen to have that program. So you'd have to go to a place like Western in order to do that. Sometimes they would want to pursue a degree that we have limited spots for. So for example in nursing we typically have about 500 students a year who start in our nursing degree, but we only have about 175 slots because of clinical placements. So those students will go someplace else.

“So we were looking at about 87 percent of our students who would start at Michigan State and then finish here or someplace else. And we said we can do even better than that. And so we began a very concerted effort to redesign all different aspects of the university. Advising, counseling, curricular pathways, the ways in which we supported students with residential education and what's happening in the dorms. The ways in which we help students with career advice and career counseling, not when they're in their junior year or their senior year, but when they are going through new student orientation. We push it all the way back so they can start thinking about the alignment between what they're learning and what they ultimately want to do with that degree.

“What has happened over the last seven years is every single year, our persistence and graduation rate has gone up. We went up from 77 to 78, 79, and 80 percent. Last year we finished at 81.3 percent. That constant push isn't about changing who we're admitting; we are admitting the same students. We’re actually designing the institution better to serve the students’ needs. And so when we talk about student success, it's a measure of the institution, not a measure of individuals sort of making it through their classes. The other thing that we've learned in this process is that grades are actually a pretty poor predictor of student success. It turns out that their grades don't tell us very much about whether they're going to graduate.

“In fact, the students who have the highest graduation rates don't have the highest grades; they're in the second tier of grades. They tend to be more resilient. They tend to be more adventurous and they do quite well in terms of retention and graduation rates. It turns out that to be successful as a student, you need to do a lot more than just get good grades. So to be a student success institution, we need to do a lot more than just make sure students get good grades. We have to support every aspect of them. We have to support their mental and physical health, their financial wellbeing, and every single thing that goes into a student's sense of belonging to the institution.

“A lot of the student success work that we've done has focused on things like basic needs. Helping students feel more confident that they know where their next meal is coming from and how they're paying rent next month, making sure that students have access to physical and mental health facilities as they need them, and increasing access to physical fitness activities on campus, which is a really big push for us right now. So combined, all these things are redesigning the university to make it a student success institution. And what we've found is that if a student starts their junior year, 19 out of 20 of them graduate. Juniors have almost a 95 percent graduation rate at Michigan State University. So our real focus right now is really looking at what happens in those first two years and designing that experience so that the students are very well taken care of and that they make it to their third year. And if they do, they're golden. They graduate.”

Largent talks about the pandemic’s impact on MSU and its operations and about the university’s plans for a more traditional campus experience this fall. And he describes his career path to MSU and what attracted him to the banks of the Red Cedar.

MSU Today airs Sunday mornings at 9:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870 and streams at WKAR.org. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.

What is MSU Today with Russ White?

MSU Today is a lively look at Michigan State University-related people, places, events and attitudes put into focus by Russ White. The show airs Saturdays at 5 P.M. and Sundays at 5 A.M. on 102.3 FM and AM 870 WKAR, and 8 P.M. on AM 760 WJR.

Unknown Speaker 0:00
So we're joined on MSU. Today today by Dr. Mark Largent. Dr. Largent is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, and a professor in the Department of History here at Michigan State University. So, Dr. Largent, thank you for joining us today. Thank you for the invitation. So you tell us people might not have an appreciation for what is an Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education? What kinds of things do you worry about every day?

Unknown Speaker 0:37
Well, you can tell from the length of my title, two things that I have a great deal of responsibility and, and relatively little authority. It's, so they give me a very, very long title in order to to help me accomplish the goals of the job. The Associate Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education, his responsibility is to coordinate the undergraduate experience, especially in and around the classroom, across the 169 majors in our 17 different degree granting colleges. So the university is divided up into four undergrad, 17 different undergraduate colleges, plus the law school, plus the two, the two medical schools. And they they kind of operate like states inside of the overall University, which is sort of like the United States. So my job is from the central unit, like the federal government, to help coordinate the all the activities that go on across the college campus related to undergraduate education. And to create a more coherent and seamless experience for our students. Because 70% of them change their majors from the time they start the time they finish, about half of them change them more than once. And that's not really a problem unless they're doing it into their third and fourth years. And in fact, soon as they change their majors in their first and second years tend to have really good outcomes, they tend to persist and graduate as they're exploring and finding their way and discovering their purposes and passions. And all of those kinds of things are the responsibility of the office, as we think about how to advise students, how to help them make the steps forward that they need to make and sometimes step sideways as they change their majors or change their intended outcomes. And then to coordinate with all the other things that happen, that are different from going to class versus going to college, going to college consists of a lot more than going to class, students only spend about 15% of their time in class, the other 85% of their waking hours are spent in college. And so all of the CO curricular and extracurricular things, everything that happens in the residence halls, everything that's part of the overall student experience, falls to my office to help coordinate make sense of and ensure that our students are given the best opportunity to learn, thrive and graduate.

Unknown Speaker 3:14
So that's, I think that, you know, intuitively, those of us that have an undergraduate degree, appreciate that you're only in class for a relatively small amount of time, and then you're just studying and maybe having a job or or, or engaged in other things. But But I think that to put 15% out of it, yeah, it seems, you know, it's sort of it at least, it drew my attention. So when we think about that, and university has had a number of has made a number of investments in what we call student success, and one of those concepts was the the neighborhood concept. How do those How do you define student success in that in the context of the 15% in class, the timeout of class, studying and preparing for a class and and that broader notion of a student? How do you how do you define student success?

Unknown Speaker 4:21
Alright, so that 15%, I think, does understate the, the, the academic and curricular investments that students have to make in their time. For every hour that a student spends in class, the expectation is that they spend two to three hours preparing for class or working on assignments, working on projects. So you're really looking at you know, one hour of class time is three to four hours overall. And so suddenly that 15% is now closer to 60% of their time is spent on academic pursuits, and then the rest of their time is spent. Many of them work. Quite a bit, some of them several jobs. They are involved in sports, they're involved in CO curricular and extracurricular activities. So that overall suite of things is a really critical part of what we think of when we talk about student success. Now, the old definition of student success was that a student was successful, as measured by the things that go on their transcript. So student success was just a student getting good grades, that it was simply that in the 21st century, both professionally and colloquially, when we talk about student success, we're actually talking about the ability of an institution to support the students that it matriculates so they can learn, thrive and graduate. So students success in the in the 20th century was really getting good grades. Student Success in the 21st century, is a measure of the institution, and whether or not your institution is designed to support your students. And so when we look at the persistence and graduation rates across the country, on average, half of the students that started college will not finish, it's an astoundingly low rate 50% of the students that start a college degree, never finish it. But then when you go to a place like the Ivy League, and the Ivy League schools, approximately 95 to 96% of the students that start finish to get this huge, huge, huge gap. If we go down the road to the University of Michigan, you're looking at about 92% of the students who start at the University of Michigan will finish their degree at the University of Michigan really great rates. Schools, like Michigan State, most of the rest of the schools in the big 10. And our peers, they tend to run in the 70s in the 70% time between 70 and 80%. And about six years ago, Michigan State said that we believe that we had a capacity to be an even better institution like that, that we could redesign ourselves to really focus on the students that came to Michigan State University, and help them learn, thrive and graduate, help them find their purposes and passions, and then design a university that supported them, so that they would learn to thrive and graduate. So when we started this effort, we did well we were at about 77% of our students. So we were in the top half of the big 10 77% of our students who started here finished at Michigan State about another 10% started at Michigan State and finished someplace else. And sometimes that was because they decided that their purpose and their passions were in one of the really few areas that Michigan State didn't have a major in. So for example, if you wanted to get a degree in aeronautics and become a pilot, we don't happen to have that program. So you'd have to go to a place like Western in order to do that. Sometimes they would want to pursue a degree that we have limited spots for so for example, nursing, we typically have about 500 students a year, we start in our nursing degree, but we only have about 175 slots because of clinical placements. So those students will go someplace else. So we were looking at about 87% of our students would start at Michigan State, and then finish some here or someplace else. And we said we could do even better than that. And so we began a very concerted effort to redesign all different aspects, the University advising, counseling, curricular pathways, the ways in which we supported students with residential education, what's happening in the dorms, the ways in which we help students with career advice and and career counseling, not when they're their junior year, their senior year. But when they're they are going through New Student Orientation, we push it all the way back so they can start thinking about the alignment between what they're learning and what they ultimately want to do with with that degree. And what has happened over the last seven years is every single year, our persistence and graduation rate has gone up. We went up from 78, seven to 78 980. Last year, we finished up at 1.3%.

Unknown Speaker 9:18
And that constant push isn't about changing who we're admitting where we are admitting the same students. And it's not about asking our students to do something that's somehow investing in make him sort of armoring them to be successful at our institution better. What we're doing is actually designing the institution better to serve the students needs. And so when we talk about student success, it's a measure of the institution, not a measure of individuals sort of making it through their classes. The other thing that we've learned in this process is that grades are actually a pretty poor predictor of student success. That is if you want to ask, do I think that this given first year student or this given sophomores given Junior is going to graduate, it turns out that their grades don't tell us very much about whether or not they're going to graduate. In fact, the students who have the highest graduation rates don't have the highest grades, they're in the spot the second tier of grades, they tend to be more resilient, they tend to, to to be more adventurous, and they do quite quite well, in terms of retention and graduation rates. It turns out that to be successful as a student, you need to do a lot more than just get good grades. So to be a student success institution, we need to do a lot more than just make sure students get good grades, we have to support every aspect of them, we have to support their mental and physical health, their financial well being there's every single thing that goes into a student's sense of belonging to the institution that they feel taken care of, and that they are well taken care of. And so a lot of the Student Success work that we've done, has focused on things like basic means helping students feel more confident that they know where their next meal is coming from, and how they're paying rent next month, making sure that students have access to physical and mental health facilities as they need them, increasing access to physical fitness, active activities on campus, which is a really big push for us right now. So combined, all these things are designed redesigning the university to make it a a student success institution. And what we found that if a student starts their junior year 19, out of 20 of more graduates, juniors have almost a 95% graduation rate at Michigan State University. So our real focus right now is really looking at what happens in those first two years, and designing that experience so that the students are very well taken care of, and they make it to that third year. And if they do, they're golden, they graduate.

Unknown Speaker 12:02
So thinking about student success, and certainly the last couple of years, the last year and a half have been probably as challenging as any that any of us can remember I yeah, obviously. times during the World War Two or other other things may be equivalent, but certainly in most of our lifetimes, it's been the most challenging circumstances we can remember. And it feels as though we've we've sort of crested the hill a bit. And, and and so what can what can parents and students look forward to, when they hopefully arrive back on campus in a couple of months?

Unknown Speaker 12:45
Yeah, so we are planning a fall semester that is much more typical, than we've certainly experienced for the last 16 months or so, there's nothing any of us want more than to be what is on our minds back to normal. So our plan for the fall is to have all of our residence halls full. We actually have a really robust class coming in this fall, our yield rate was higher than we had expected. So we had more students who wanted to come to Michigan State than we even we had expected, which is good news for happy to see that. So the residence halls will be very full, not overly full. But certainly all the rooms full. We expect to have all of our cultural and social activities in full swing Wharton Center has already published in schedule for the year, and it's sort of back to normal. The stands in all of the athletic events will be filled with roaring fans, you know, the goal is that we are back to being the residential university that we're all desperate to get back to. We're excited about that. If we are avoiding using the words back to normal, in part because we've all been through a pretty difficult period. It's been difficult for students and difficult faculty, staff and administrators. And so you know, there's some notion that we're just going to pick right up where we left off. We've also learned a lot in the last year and a half. And I think we want to be a little bit different institution than we were before. We have found that the students who are coming here this coming fall, both as new and returning students are academically better prepared than they had been in the past. But it's one of the things that really surprises us is that students learning games during the pandemics did not fall off. And in fact, many of them put intense attention on moving more quickly toward graduation. The rate of credit taking increased during the pandemic. And we're seeing a lot of our incoming students of bringing in International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement credits and having already taken some college credit. So that is the end Isn't that they're coming in academically less prepared. But we are finding that, you know, all of us feel this. But you can imagine what it's like to be an 18 year old, the last year and a half have been very difficult emotionally, it's been difficult on students, friendships, it's been very challenging for them socially. So we're really pouring a lot of time, energy and resources in the thinking about how we onboard those students to help them get back into the swing of a more structured in person environment. And so again, it's not just about what happens in the classroom, it's that overall kind of wraparound experience that a student has been going off to college. And we want to be prepared this fall to meet all of our students needs, because that's what a good student success institution does.

Unknown Speaker 15:46
So Mark, as we, as we draw closer to the end of our time, I'll ask a couple of maybe maybe slightly more lighthearted questions. One is what what drew you to Michigan State? How we talked about our students? And and what what might be appealing for them at Michigan State, but how did you land on Michigan state's doorstep?

Unknown Speaker 16:09
I came here in 2005 sodas at 16 years ago now. And I came from a small private school in the Pacific Northwest, the University of Puget Sound, really a beautiful place to live a place that I loved living, I had been there for four years as a professor of history. And this job came up. And you know, it's one of those serendipity kinds of things where somebody I knew had had been asked if they had any references for it for it. And I had expressed some interest in it. It was a job in James Madison College, which is really one of our gems on campus, the rest of the three residential colleges, and then all the Living Learning Communities are absolutely amazing. And I put an application in and Much to my surprise, I got an interview. And then even greater surprise, was offered the position. I went back to my wife and said, I know we live on an island in the Pacific Northwest, I take a ferry to work every day. And it's this incredibly ideal, I think, but I think I want to move to Central Michigan. And why and I told her that I had this real sense that this was a institution that was deeply invested in what I've come to know is that the land grant ethic, a notion that everybody here has a responsibility to the people around them and to future generations to help people be more than they were when they were born. That is to get past the limitations of their own birth, I took kind of a goofy path into academia, I was a high school dropout, I grew up in rural North Dakota, dropped out of high school my senior year and finished high school by correspondence. And then went off to college and really was not a stellar college student, I enjoyed the going to college part better than the going to class part. And then at some point, in my junior year, a faculty member kind of said, you could be better than this, you should do more and push through really hard and somehow sort of found my way and then into graduate school, and then into a PhD. And, you know, really were those taps on the shoulders, those sort of helping out along the way. And realize that, you know, I wanted to devote my career to an institution, that that kind of thing, helping people be more than they even believe they could be. I wanted to be part of an institution like that. So I'll Madison was a great place to land, I spent 12 years there, and then worked in Briggs as an administrator for five years, and moved into learning analytics, where we look at the university's data in a very complex way to better understand where and how it is that we could be better at supporting our students. And then through the leadership changes in the last three years, I had the opportunity to move into central administration. And then about two and a half years ago into my current position in the office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education. But all of it has seen this this trajectory where I've written along with the university as it's gotten more and more invested in making sure that it really fulfills this thing it calls the land grant mission, the idea that, you know, we are here in this moment, to help the people around us ensure that they and their families and the next generation are better than the one before have more opportunities are able to contribute to the greater good. And that I find is a really exciting thing.

Unknown Speaker 19:49
Now, Mark, I couldn't agree more. It's it's what drew me to the university and our, our, our our our academic path. And, and and early success or lack thereof perhaps are, are amazingly similar. And I've always thought that the land grant tradition was a was a tradition It was very accepting it was a it was a created a very large tent for folks that maybe weren't as self directed as some of my friends maybe a little less motivated at points in their life like I was and, and yet allow people to be better versions of themselves with a little stick to itiveness. And, and so that's a that's a special story that is very familiar sounding. So, so let me wrap up by just asking you, you, you lead an extremely busy life, sort of being the, the behind the scenes person to to help our 50,000 students, particularly our 3037 38,000 the undergraduates find their way through the spectacular institution. But at the end of the day, at the end of the long day, what do you do for fun.

Unknown Speaker 21:10
Um, so I have four young children, my kids are the between the ages of four and 15. So work life balance is sort of a constant opportunity for me. And so there's an awful lot of family things all through college, grad school. Even before that, back in high school, I had been a bicycle mechanic, I worked my way all through high school and college grad school, wrenching on bicycles and being a team mechanic for him out of St. Paul, Minnesota, when I was in grad school, and I still love cycling. As my family gets more into that I've had more opportunities to enjoy it. So that's an important part of it. We, we have really embraced Michigan, my wife grew up in the harbor springs toschi area. And so she, you know, gives me a lot of opportunity to learn more about states, we camp, you know, a lot of sort of family oriented things at this point in my life. And again, you couldn't have an easier place to land with a family, I mean, Central Michigan in this way. You're an hour from from pretty much everything. white sand beaches or forests, or densely populated urban areas. So it's a great place to live. And I'm really lucky to be here. I'm really lucky for that friend who tapped me on the shoulder and said, Hey, you got to apply for this.

Unknown Speaker 22:38
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It's, well, yours is a great story. And you're an extraordinary asset to Michigan State University. So we're joined today on MSU. Today by Dr. Mark Largent, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education, Dean of Undergraduate Studies and a professor in the Department of History here at Michigan State University. Thanks so much for joining us tomorrow.

Unknown Speaker 23:01
Thank you, Bill. And thanks for everything you're doing including this show. I know how useful it is for all of us to have opportunities to talk to each other and into the public about what we do and I really appreciate you hosting all this. Thank you. Thank you.

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