STARKVILLE, Miss.--A Mississippi State program founded in 1998 continues its support and research efforts to boost the academic success of freshmen enrolled at the university.
Called Pathfinder, the project provides detailed data about qualities that contribute to classroom success, as well as the reasons students select Mississippi State and continue their studies after their freshman year.
In its annual survey of nearly 1,000 MSU students, the program also identifies behaviors--especially academic--that may affect their well-being. Gauging such behaviors as smoking, alcohol consumption and seatbelt use, the survey often detects some surprising trends.
The No. 1 predictor of academic success for freshmen continues to be regular class attendance, said David McMillen, a research fellow at MSU's nationally recognized Social Science Research Center and founder of the project.
"With the help of faculty members, we identify freshmen who miss two or more classes, and contact them personally," he explained. "We want students to know how significant class attendance is and that instructors are concerned when a student misses class."
Since the program began, the low-key approach has played a role in increasing the academic success of freshmen, their decision to stay in school and their chances of graduating.
"We have eight-year data to show there is, in general, a full grade-point difference between those who go to class and those who have attendance problems," McMillen said. That translates, as an example, into a 1.7 grade-point average for those with attendance problems versus 2.7 out of a maximum 4.0 for those who regularly attend class.
In the recently completed 2005 Pathfinder survey, research scientists also asked about a range of behaviors. "We're trying to quantify factors affecting retention, grades and, ultimately, graduation," McMillen explained. "The results have implications for both student academics and health."
Initially, Pathfinder surveys found that most demographic variables appear to have little influence on grades. For those MSU freshmen who began their studies in 1998 and graduated in 2005, however, the survey report indicated "wildly significant" differences in grade-point averages, freshman-to-sophomore year retention and graduation rates among those who said they smoked, as well as those who refuse to use seatbelts.
McMillen said that, in terms of freshman GPA:
--Students identifying themselves as smokers had an average 2.33 grade point, compared with 2.79 for nonsmokers;
--Some 86 percent of freshmen who didn't smoke continued at Mississippi State in their sophomore year, compared to 67 percent who did smoke; and
--While more than 60 percent of nonsmokers in this group went on to graduate, only 41 percent of smokers received their diplomas.
Similar results were reported for those who do and do not wear seatbelts.
"A great difference in grades is identified in these behaviors," McMillen said, noting that the data can help guide programs that emphasize social responsibilities and individual behaviors, as well as health.
Those messages are consistent with the Pathfinder goal of encouraging students to be self-directed and personally responsible in their studies, said Ty Abernathy of the University Academic Advising Center. An SSRC research associate, he operates the Pathfinder intervention with the help of residence hall assistants in the Division of Student Affairs and its Office of Housing and Residence Life.
"By making individual contact with students who have attendance problems, we give our university a human face," Abernathy said. "While we talk to students about attendance problems, we encourage them to talk about any other issues affecting their schoolwork.
"They're left with the knowledge that at Mississippi State, people care about them as an individual."
That sentiment also is consistent with survey data. In the section that asked why they selected Mississippi State, students most often cited the friendliness of the campus community, followed by academic offerings.
NEWS EDITORS/DIRETORS: For more about MSU Pathfinder, telephone Dr. McMillen at (662) 325-3936 or Mr. Abernathy at 325-0595.