John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Missouri Southern State University

Institutional Profile

Foundations of Excellence® Cohort:
2005-2006 National Select
Carnegie Classification:
Baccalaureate Colleges/Diverse Fields
Regional Accreditation:
Higher Learning Commission
Contact Information:

Betsy Griffin, Ph.D., Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs

Improving the First Year through Foundations of Excellence® and Accreditation
Betsy Griffin, Ph.D., Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs

Missouri Southern State University participated in the Foundations of Excellence (FoE) self-study as part of the Policy Center’s 2005-2006 cohort. The University’s desire to participate in the FoE process arose from persistent concerns about the level of success of its first-year students. Previous initiatives had not been successful in improving first-year success, fall-to-fall retention, or graduation rates. The Foundations of Excellence model provided a process that promoted systematic self-study and action planning.

When the decision was made to participate in the FoE process, Missouri Southern was three years from its Higher Learning Commission (HLC) reaffirmation of accreditation visit. The HLC allows institutions in good standing to do a Special Emphasis self-study, which, in our case, involved a focus on the first year of college using the Foundations of Excellence process. MSSU selected the Special Emphasis self-study because combining the self-studies provided increased efficiency and insured campus-wide commitment to the first-year project. The synergy created by combining the first-year project with accreditation has been beneficial in moving the first-year project forward.

Linking FoE with "Action Projects"

Missouri Southern’s self-study process was led by a Steering Committee composed of over 20 faculty members, professional staff, and administrators. Members of the Steering Committee chaired seven Research Teams, which included over 85 participants. During the 2005-2006 academic year, the teams researched the Foundational Dimensions®, wrote Dimension reports, and made recommendations to the Steering Committee. The entire campus community had access to many of the research documents and all of the Dimension reports through a self-study web site. At the end of the year, the Steering Committee reviewed all of the team recommendations and arrived at twenty-four recommendations for improvement of the first-year experience.

The co-chairs combined the team reports into a Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year Self-Study Report, which was distributed to the Board of Governors, the administration, all faculty members, and professional staff. The final report was also placed on the self-study web site. The co-chairs made presentations on the recommendations to the President and the Board of Governors.

In 2006-2007, the seven Research Teams turned their attention to insuring that there were adequate data to address the HLC criteria for accreditation, and the Steering Committee formed six new Action Project Teams. The Action Project Teams included new members, as well as many who participated in the FoE self-study. The six Action Project Teams developed implementation plans for ten of the highest priority first-year recommendations. The administration was given periodic updates on the developing plans. The Steering Committee approved all the project implementation plans. As elements of the plans were implemented, the Action Project Teams have continued to move the projects forward. Highlights of some the Action Projects are described in the following paragraphs.

"The Foundations of Excellence self-study provided MSSU with an excellent strategic planning process for the first-year experience."

One team was charged with developing a philosophy statement, goals, and an assessment plan for the first-year experience. Having been approved through the campus governance process, the Philosophy Statement for the First Year Experience now appears framed next to the University Mission in many campus buildings. It is also in the Student Handbook and on bookmarks that have been widely distributed to faculty and students. A plan to use entering and end of the first year student surveys has been implemented. Assessments for other elements of the first-year experience are under development.

The revision of the existing first-year transitions course was a major topic of discussion during the self study and the focus of an Action Project. Faculty expected this course to accomplish more than was possible in a one-credit course taught by peer mentors. It was also identified as the main common experience for MSSU’s first-year students. The new course will address many of the goals for the first-year experience. It is a three-credit course, which meets the international studies component of the general education requirements and is required of students who enter with fewer than 30 credits. Three positions—a faculty director, professional staff, and clerical staff—were added to coordinate the course. It will be taught by faculty members paired with peer mentors. Training for both the faculty and peer mentors will occur in the spring prior to offering the fall class.

Academic advising was the focus of another Action Project. The team proposed an advising mission, vision, and model for adoption by the campus. The development of a First-Year Advising Unit that would train faculty and staff advisors and implement an electronic early warning system was also proposed. An additional staff advisor was hired to help implement the early warning system. The Advising Unit, the Action Project Team, and the Teaching and Learning Committee are working together to present Master Advisor Training. Approximately 40% of the faculty participated in the first three-hour workshop focusing on advising as teaching.

The self-study research revealed numerous classes with high first-year enrollment and low-success rates. In 2006-2007, an Action Project team worked with the Math and Economics Departments to develop plans for improving success in developmental mathematics and general education economics classes. The Math Department developed a multi-pronged approach that included a computer lab staffed by faculty, new course software, and in-class peer tutoring. The Economics Department revised the course syllabus, adding personal finance components to make the content more relevant to the students. In fall 2007, the Action Team began discussions with other departments.

The Foundations of Excellence self-study provided MSSU with an excellent strategic planning process for the first-year experience. Making the first-year experience the special emphasis of the HLC accreditation self-study has helped to maintain the University’s commitment to the first-year projects. A FYE Planning and Oversight Committee was established to insure continued coordination, planning, and assessment.