SFA advisor Trina Benson Menefee counsels Amanda Swofford, a senior kinesiology major from Brownsboro.

Stephen F. Austin State University advisor Trina Benson Menefee counsels Amanda Swofford, a senior kinesiology major from Brownsboro, regarding her upcoming coursework. Menefee is a member of a team of SFA administrators dedicated to helping students graduate from college in a more timely manner and with less debt.

Stephen F. Austin State University is on a mission to help students graduate more quickly and with less debt, and departments across the campus, including two newly created teams, are working to implement changes to meet this goal.

According to Dr. Scott Gordon, SFA president, the university is laser focused on student success and on-time completion in order to assist students in achieving their dreams.  

“In addition to our recently approved tuition models and housing incentives, we are looking to find unnecessary bureaucratic policies and procedures and remove them,” Gordon said. “We are streamlining processes to serve our students better. Our goal is to have students graduate in four years and with a lower cost for their degree.”

Tiger Team

Designated as the Tiger Team, the top priority for the group is removing barriers that might stand in the way of success for new or continuing students. The term “Tiger Team” is used frequently in corporate settings and describes a group that includes knowledgeable individuals from different specialties working together to solve complex problems, according to Erma Brecht, executive director of enrollment management.

“Some of our practices or processes have become outdated due to technology enhancements, new initiatives or different expectations from how our students want and need to be served,” Brecht said. “The Tiger Team is committed to dissecting each barrier and offering an enhanced approach to overcoming these barriers, when possible.”

Anthony Espinoza, chief information officer, said the team is streamlining internal processes while looking for opportunities to better leverage the university’s investment in information technology.

“For example, students in the Perkins College of Education and in the Rusche College of Business can now review and electronically sign their academic advising forms online,” he said.

As an additional benefit, registration holds have been modified, and in some cases eliminated, to improve the student’s registration experience.         

“The establishment of the Tiger Team demonstrates SFA’s commitment to our student’s success,” Espinoza said.

Course scheduling

Anyone who attended college before technology became a part of the registration process probably remembers waiting in long lines with a registration form in hand, hoping to have a sticker added to the form indicating enrollment in the desired classes. While electronic registration has eliminated the need for long lines, sometimes enrolling in the most desired class session is still not without difficulties.

A new group dedicated to removing these difficulties includes each of the six academic deans and is called the LAN-CAT team.

“LAN-CAT stands for Leadership Actions Now - Course Availability Team,” explained Dr. Steve Bullard, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “The deans of each of our six colleges provide the ‘leadership,’ since each course we offer is in one of their colleges, and since they are ultimately responsible for what’s offered each semester. The rest of the team includes administrators and staff members who can support the actions needed.”

Bullard said college students across the nation experience difficulties when trying to schedule specific courses during the semesters and time periods when they need to take them.

“We're taking every step possible to make sure SFA students have the courses and labs they need, when they need them,” he said. “This means creating new sections of courses when and where needed, and it also means putting faculty, staff and technology resources in the places where students need them most.”

For the spring 2020 semester, additional seats were offered in multiple courses, across all six colleges.

“Most of our attention is on ‘gateway’ courses like anatomy and physiology,” Bullard said. “These are courses that are required before a student can progress to the next level in their degree path or curriculum.”

Advising Task Force

Advising university students includes tracking individual success according to benchmarks, recording summaries of appointments, and contacting those who may need assistance in improving their academic standing. According to Dr. Marc Guidry, associate provost, SFA is utilizing a web-based program called Navigate to communicate with students, schedule their advising appointments and assist with other advising duties.

“Our advisors can use the system to contact students whose academic performance indicates they may need additional coaching, for instance, students who performed in ‘the murky middle’—meaning somewhere in the ‘C’ to ‘C+’ range—and who could elevate their performance with the right supports,” Guidry said. “Advisors also contact all probationary students to provide them with information and resources that can help them recover their academic standing, rather than being placed on suspension.”

The Navigate program also serves as an early alert system professors can use to issue an alert regarding a student who has missed too many classes or received a bad grade early in the semester, so that an advisor can intervene and assist the student, Guidry said.

“Navigate also contains analytics on our student success metrics that can track students with academic performance concerns or academic progress concerns,” Guidry explained. “We can also track things like graduation rate by credit range, that is, what percentage of students who took 15-18 hours graduated versus their peers who only took 12-14 hours in a given semester. What our internal SFA data show is that students who take more hours tend to have a higher GPA.”

Guidry said the Navigate program allows SFA to assess the effectiveness of advising interventions and improve the opportunities for student success.

15 to Finish campaign

Many national research studies also show that college students are more successful — with higher grades and higher graduation rates — when they take at least 15 hours during the fall and spring semesters. SFA has launched a new 15 to Finish campaign to remind students that completing fewer than 30 hours per academic year is not equivalent to a four-year degree plan.

According to Bullard, federal financial aid policies require students to be enrolled in just 12 credits each semester to be eligible for assistance, and for some students, this creates an impression that 12 hours is “full time.”

“Students who only take 12 semester credit hours tend not to do as well academically, and they also run the risk of using all of their financial aid without reaching the 120-hour goal,” he explained. “Taking at least 15 hours each semester means students are more likely to graduate on time, since in eight semesters they can achieve the 120 hours required in most bachelor’s degree programs.”

SFA tuition beginning in the fall 2020 will be on a flat-rate basis beginning at 12 hours, so students may take as many as 21 hours for the cost of 12 hours.

“The most expensive college degree is the one you never receive because you fell short of completing all requirements,” Bullard said. “SFA's new 15 to Finish campaign, and the other efforts that are underway, will help ensure our students are successful.”

For more information about SFA admissions, visit sfasu.edu/admissions-and-aid.