In her first year at Mines, Taylor Helbig was struggling. A guard on the women’s basketball team, she played in all 29 games of the season and was ranked fourth in points scored, but academically she was falling behind. Determined to turn this around, she made an appointment with the Center for Academic Services & Advising at the beginning of the following semester. Over the next few months, the staff at CASA worked with Helbig to organize her study practices in a way that complemented her demanding athletic schedule.
“I honestly would not have passed that semester [spring 2013] without their help,” she says.
Helbig’s story is one of dozens that Colin Terry, CASA’s director, recalls to illustrate the impact this office has had since it opened in May 2012.
Creating CASA was part of a campus-wide initiative to provide more support to students, particularly during the challenging freshman and sophomore years.
Before the change, until a student declared a major, her academic advisor was the faculty member who moderated her section of CSM101—a required, 1/2-credit first-year orientation seminar. The new model shifts responsibility for advising Mines’ approximately 1,900 first- and second-year students to CASA’s four professional academic advisors. “One of the biggest advantages is that with four full-time advisors working out of the same office, we can deliver comprehensive information about the full range of opportunities open to students,” Terry says. “Many students arrive on campus with a major in mind, but more than 60 percent end up studying something different. Our goal is to help students make decisions they’ll be happy with 10 or 20 years from now.”
Terry points out that there’s nothing experimental about the new model. “It’s been adopted by universities around the country, and studies show it helps students get through the first two tenuous years of college.”
CSM101 is still a required class taught by Mines staff and faculty, but the curriculum has been modified. In addition to helping students adjust to the campus climate and culture, the course addresses broad life skills, study skills, teamwork, goal setting and methods for choosing a major. If students want further support, they can speak with specially trained departmental faculty, who hold office hours at CASA, as well as with the full-time academic advisors. Students can go to CASA for help with readmissions, academic coaching, supplemental instruction, tutoring, and Academic Excellence Workshops, which provide help with some of the more challenging core curriculum classes.
As in the past, when a student declares his major, he is assigned an advisor in his new department; nevertheless, the doors at CASA remain open. The office recently launched a new initiative that flags a student when his GPA for a single semester drops below a certain point; previously, only cumulative GPAs were tracked. “We’ve seen students who have literally not passed a class in several semesters, but because their original GPA was so good, it took that long for it to drop low enough to get on anyone’s radar,” Terry says. The new system should identify students in need of support sooner.
Academic advising is the central component of CASA’s mission, but the department supports students in other ways as well. Terry points out that students with GPAs of between 3.5 and 4.0 leave Mines at the same rate as students averaging between 2.0 and 2.5. Presumably, academic challenges account for the latter group, but why students in the high-achieving group leave is more puzzling. So far, Terry says that the common thread appears to be the number of campus connections students make. To identify students who may be at risk, the school is taking steps to improve how it tracks community involvement.
“We need to identify isolated students and try to get them plugged into a community,” Terry says. “Clubs, research opportunities, sports or professional organizations—anything that helps develop a meaningful connection to campus and their schoolwork.”
The recommendation to create CASA came from the Residential Campus Committee, which was convened in 2009 to address a variety of objectives, including student retention. The committee’s recommendations launched several initiatives that address different aspects of student life. “Student support is a team effort,” says Jessica Keefer, an academic advising coordinator at CASA. “We have a network of programs and professionals on campus that reaches far beyond CASA.”
Their collective efforts are apparently paying off: Average retention rates for the period 2000–2010 were 85 percent, but in August 2013, 92 percent of the previous year’s freshman class returned to campus—the highest retention rate on record.