Students First

Students First: A Definition.

Students first. What does this mean?

On a somewhat superficial level, it simply means projecting a welcoming and friendly attitude to each and every student. It means being more helpful when they ask for assistance or come to faculty and staff with concerns. It means reaching out to students and creating an environment in which they feel valued.

It only takes one careless comment or one example of red tape to turn off a student to our university—particularly prospective students. Unfortunately, we have too many examples of red tape and bureaucracy across campus.

We need to break down those barriers.

As an institution, we need to be courteous, patient, and positive whenever we deal with students. We need to send a consistent and insistent message that they come first. Merely being friendly, though, will only get us so far.

If we have made the decision to accept a student into the university, we should do everything in our power to keep that student here, and to make that student successful. One of the major roadblocks students face is the ability to afford a University of Arkansas education. The cost of higher education has been on the rise nationwide since the mid 1960s, increasing in the past two decades at a pace that far exceeds that of inflation. This is a problem all across the country, as higher education increasingly prices itself out of reach for those who would benefit the most from it: low-income students.

Toward this end, I always want to keep these students in mind when balancing our need for resources and future development. We do not, and will not, take tuition and fee increases lightly. I want to be able to say that no student will be denied a University of Arkansas education because of his or her pocketbook. I’ll do everything in my power to keep it that way.

Finances, though, are not the only reason students drop out or transfer. We also have to respect our students enough to invite them into a challenging and exciting academic environment while at the same time providing them with the support they need to succeed. The quality of student-faculty interaction must be high, involving opportunities for students to participate in active and collaborative learning. They also need access to meaningful educational experiences, such as conducting research or studying abroad. While we offer this learning environment, it can always be strengthened and improved.

If they come here, we need to keep them here. Since 1997, our six-year graduation rate has risen more than 17 percent—currently around 59 percent. Statewide, the number is around 46 percent. As both an institution and a state, we can and must do better. Arkansas is second to last in the country in the number of adults who hold bachelor’s degrees, at 19 percent.

How do we increase our graduation and retention rates?

We do it by closely monitoring year-to-year changes and studying the impact of different interventions on student outcomes; by examining the graduations rates of different student populations; and by continuously asking ourselves what can be improved. This goes for high income, low income, minority, or majority students. We can’t act as though every student comes from the same background and has the same needs, the same preparation, and the same expectations and understandings.

They don’t.

This may also require more ‘intrusive’ counseling, which requires counselors to be more actively watching over students, rather than simply waiting for them to ask for help. It means identifying and engaging students who are at risk of dropping out. It may also mean putting more freshmen in learning communities where they receive more individual instruction and more academic support from their peers.

In short, whatever it takes, that’s what we must do.

That’s what it means to put students first.

G. David Gearhart
University of Arkansas