At Florida Gulf Coast University, student success isn’t simply a catchy phrase: Combined with enrollment management, it comprises a primary division of the institution’s administration that’s creating a significant positive impact on the student experience.
The Student Success & Enrollment Management Division (SS&EM) came into being just three years ago, but has already reaped impressive results, including increasing the 4-year graduation rate by 19 percentage points; raising the university’s retention rate (the number of freshmen who return for sophomore year) above 80 percent for the first time; and enrolling a freshman class of some 3,000 – the largest ever – this fall.
This journey of redefining and supporting student success began in 2017 with the creation of a task force headed by Mitch Cordova, Ph.D., who was then the dean of Marieb College of Health & Human Services.
“We took the time to sit down with each other and articulate why change was necessary,” said President Mike Martin. “College is a transformational time in students’ lives, and we needed to make sure students are set up for a holistic experience. Once everyone agreed to the principle, things began to fall into place.”
The task force commenced upon a comprehensive analysis of all programs and initiatives related to student engagement and enrollment management. The result: In March 2018, the Division of Student Success and Enrollment Management was created, composed of three units: Enrollment Management, Academic Management and Student Engagement, with Cordova appointed as vice president of the new division.
To be given an opportunity to lead such a division has been very humbling,” Cordova said. “Looking back 3 years later, it’s been so amazing to see the great work of our tremendous staff in executing the vision we had for this division producing amazing outcomes.”
Enrollment Management Unit
Led by Associate Vice President Lisa Johnson, Ph.D., the Enrollment Management unit is responsible for admissions, financial aid, enrollment services, scholarship and more. The unit’s staff works with students, families and members of the community to help ensure students succeed.
Folding Admissions and Financial Aid into the Enrollment Management unit and housing both in the same building, reporting to the same vice president, increased efficiencies for university staff and created a smoother process for students in need of financial aid and interested in applying for scholarships.
“One thing we did,” Johnson said, “is that we now include an offer of a merit scholarship when mailing acceptance letters to merit scholars.” Combining these two actions added an appealing incentive for prospective students who could learn early in the acceptance process that they had qualified for a scholarship.
Recently, the division took things one step further by creating Student Financial, Enrollment and Business Services Unit, which aims to help simplify access to parking services, FGCU ID cards and other financial and business matters for students. Jorge Lopez is the new associate vice president of this unit.
Academic Engagement Unit
The Academic Engagement unit fosters student success through programs designed to positively impact students’ academic and career goals. Career development, service learning, civic engagement and advising services, academic achievement and others come within its purview and help students connect with FGCU early in their first year.
The Center for Career and Exploratory Advising is another example of a shared vision serving student success. How a student’s major impacts future career choices is not always clear to a student. But when both offices share space in the same building, Associate Vice President of Academic Engagement Andrew Cinoman, Ph.D., said it is easy to connect the student to an advisor who can translate the major in question into potential career options.
“I am so proud of what we as a unit and as a university have achieved,” Cinoman said. “Everyone in our unit is unbelievably proud of what we’ve done. When departments with common goals are in the same division, it makes it easier to get on the same page, make decisions, and get things started right away.”
Student Engagement Unit
Rounding out the student experience are professionals in the Student Engagement unit, led by Associate Vice President Brian Fisher, Ed.D.
“The student engagement unit has two primary objectives,” said Fisher. “First is to provide a broad array of experiences designed to help engage the students and connect them with the university community. Secondly, we provide care and support for students, promoting a culture to take care of their health and wellbeing.”
To that end, Student Engagement oversees housing and residence life, campus life, student government, student health services and more. At any given time, the unit might have more than 500 student employees and even more volunteers.
Fisher reflects on the growth of FGCU from its founding almost 25 years ago. “In the early days, the focus was on building each department,” he said. “Now, the big focus is how can we collaborate more between these different departments? Many of us were operating too independently or doing things that overlapped.”
The “new day” dawns brightly
What it all amounts to is that SS&EM adds up to a “new day” at the university, which is soon to celebrate its 25th anniversary. This change in approach, with its all-inclusive, campus-wide focus on student success, is just one more sign of FGCU’s growth and maturity.
“This cultural shift caused a greater integration and cross-fertilization of individual units campus wide,” President Martin said. “We began to see we’re all in this together no matter what our assignment. Not only am I responsible for my specific assignments, I’m also responsible to help my colleague down the hall be successful.”
Of the shift, Johnson said, “It is the culture on campus to really care about attracting, enrolling and retaining students, so they can be proud, and we can be proud, as they walk across the stage at graduation.”
But it doesn’t stop here. Continuous improvement is the order of the day. “People are committed to finding out even more things we can do better,” Martin said. “We’ll always do the best we can to graduate students well equipped to make a difference in their world.”
Reflecting on the faculty, staff and administrators’ responsibility to ensure student success, Martin said, “In the end, all our efforts are about who we serve, not who the servants are.”