A Student Group Can Produce Retention – an Example of the Middle Earth Program
by Marc Cohen UA’16 and Jim Stellar
MC has been and is involved in student leadership at the University at Albany, SUNY, and now at the SUNY system level. We do research together on how leadership opportunities for undergraduates can be part of an experiential education package that encourages students to better develop themselves in college and therefore succeed and graduate. In this report, he looks at one specific peer assistance program, Middle Earth, started by students in the early 1970s and is still running today running today.
I conducted some student interview research on a student group on the University at Albany (SUNY) campus called Middle Earth. That program may be worthy of duplication at other schools seeking to improve student retention as it claims a 98% freshman to sophomore retention rate in the last academic year when the overall retention from Freshman to Sophomore was more like 80.7%.
What is the program? The Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program provides trained telephone hotline and online peer assistance, peer education, and peer career advisement services to assist students in meeting their educational goals and in coping with emotional, social, and other life issues that they face. In short, it is a guidance system through which students feel they are not alone, and have ready access to resources to help them overcome obstacles – hopefully before they reach a crisis level – but during and afterwards as well.
Students involved in the Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program reported that their membership enhanced their experience at the University at Albany. Academically, these students told me that they improved time management and organizational skills, and were motivated to do well as they strived to be role models for others as a result of the Middle Earth model. Socially, members had the opportunity to forge lifelong relationships and network with likeminded individuals from the program. Their membership played a key role in their staying at the University, and in many cases led to their staying at UAlbany for graduate studies and in succeeding academically at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
Students also truly appreciated the close relationships they forged with faculty who led the program. Students were made to feel comfortable approaching faculty members with their own issues and using Counseling Center services for their own needs if necessary.
The hands-on, real life experiences gained through Middle Earth contributed to their desire to continue helping people as they looked toward a career. Organized properly, the resources necessary for this peer-counseling mechanism are low, and the result in returns on investment far in excess of cost.
To go a little deeper into the program and its effect on the students who are members of Middle Earch, here’s how it works. All incoming Middle Earth students at the undergraduate level would be paired with a student upper-class staff member and would remain with them throughout their time in the Middle Earth program. The staff member would be trained to draw upon the resources of the institution to assist students prior to, and if necessary during and after crises that might otherwise result in disenrollment. This component of the program enhances student bonding within the program, and that helps with freshman retention. Faculty and school support staff would be plugged into this team and would be prepared to take proactive and reactive measures as necessary. The paired staff member would actively reach out to each student assigned to them every two or three weeks by text, email or phone call. They would seek active feedback from their student at those times which would give the trained staff member an opportunity to sense if the student’s life was under control and on a successful path. If not, the staff member could intercede as appropriate. The staff member would also send occasional messages with useful information relative to each student’s situation. Just having a staff member being genuinely interested in a student’s life and progress can make the difference between success and tragedy. This component of the program provides leadership opportunities to the students as staff members and that helps with their upper-class retention.
The staff member could also help foster faculty-supervised experiential learning across majors which would help incoming freshman students to feel more included on campus. Ensuring that incoming freshman are familiar with such hands-on opportunities available to them within their major could make a difference when faced with a decision about whether to leave or not. For students who are unable to accomplish this on their own, a staff member’s assistance in building relationships with faculty in the student’s major or subject of interest would improve the student’s social experience as well as their academic success. Ideally, students would begin to feel as though they matter in the eyes of faculty. Such hands-on work would also provide a forum in which students would have the chance to interact with likeminded peers.
If a student became overwhelmed, or confronted with obstacles, the staff member would be trained in and knowledgeable about the resources most schools already have in place to assist the student to stay on course. Most importantly, if the staff relationship is established early on, problems can be identified and solved before they escalate to the point of disenrollment or worse.
Of course, all of these services described to the freshman Middle Earth student are the same as the entire Middle Earth program provides to the campus at large. But this blog is not on the effect of Middle Earth on campus. It is on the effect of the Middle Earth program on its own students.
Aside from the points raised above about bonding and leadership opportunities, we want to note that groups in general have a powerful impact on individuals. This phenomenon is seen in the 2014 book The Village Effect by Susan Pinker. Much recent social psychological research emphasizes this effect of the group on the individual from the finishing stages of our evolution when we saw the advantages of a high functioning group to human survival . We saw powerful group effects in producing such retention in a recent blog post on the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP).
The bottom line is that we do not think higher education has taken enough of an advantage of this newer understanding to develop programs that could help students, through such experiences, find themselves in college as they also pursue the major field of study that is represented in their path through the curriculum. When classic facts-and-theories curriculum opportunities combine with self-discovery opportunities, especially in one’s field of study, the result is extraordinary growth in the students and, improved freshman retention and even graduation rates.