Pathfinders is a research-based intervention designed to increase academic success among freshmen. Indicators of the efficacy of the intervention are higher GPAs, increased persistence in college, and increased graduation rates.
The Pathfinders program began in the fall semester of 1998 and has operated continuously since that time. Prior to Pathfinders creation, the six-year graduation rate at MSU had been approximately 50%. Within a few years of starting the Pathfinders intervention, the six-year graduation rate rose to 60%. This increase occurred despite the fact that ACT averages and high school core grades remained essentially the same from 1993 to 2013.
The Pathfinders program is based on several assumptions that are supported by research at Mississippi State University and many other institutions:
- Many freshmen who make poor grades have good or outstanding qualifications (ACT or SAT scores and high school grades).
- The difference in standardized test scores and high school grades between freshmen continuing in the sophomore year and those not continuing is significant but not large.
- The difference in college grades between continuing and non-continuing students is large (at MSU, 2.8 vs 1.7 for the freshman year data from the years 1997-2013).
- Most freshmen who make poor grades get into academic difficulty very early in the fall semester.
- The best early indicator of academic difficulty the institution has available is class attendance.
The general purpose of Pathfinders is to assist freshmen in becoming personally responsible and self-directed in an environment that is academically more demanding and less regulated than high school. We attempt to achieve this purpose by promoting responsible class attendance. Special emphasis is placed on the first 6 weeks of the freshman year because this is the time most academic problems begin.
- During Freshman Orientation, small group leaders emphasize to incoming freshmen the importance of regular class attendance.
- In the plenary orientation session with freshmen and their parents, the president of the University, and the Provost discuss the importance of regular class attendance.
- Faculty teaching freshmen are asked to monitor class attendance and using the Banner system inform Pathfinders of freshmen missing classes. Scanners are used to monitor attendance in large classes.
- Pathfinders’ staff working with Residence Life Academic Assistants contact freshmen having attendance problems. Contact is brief (approximately two minutes) and positive but designed to encourage class attendance and consultation with instructors and advisors concerning academic difficulties. The role of personal responsibility is emphasized.
An essential part of the program has been the cooperation and assistance of Student Affairs staff. At Mississippi State University over 95% of the freshmen live in residence halls. By working with residence hall academic assistants employed by Student Affairs and trained and supervised by Pathfinders staff, it is possible to make one on one contact with most freshmen with attendance problems. In practical terms this approach enabled the Pathfinders program to function without hiring additional personnel. In human terms, the approach led to positive, enthusiastic, caring upperclassmen delivering the attendance message to freshmen.
The residence hall assistants are able to make face-to-face contact with about two-thirds of the freshmen reported to Pathfinders. At least three attempts are made to talk with freshmen in their residence hall. If these attempts are unsuccessful the coordinator of the intervention sends an email to the students regarding the importance of regular class attendance. In general, freshmen are contacted within 48 hours of being reported. Timely intervention is essential to help students before problems become worse.
Pathfinder’s focus is clearly on class attendance; however, the brief intervention conducted by residence hall academic assistants has several other functions. Students are encouraged to talk to their instructors if they have questions or academic problems. Students are also encouraged to talk to their advisor about problems. The need to take personal responsibility for regular class attendance is emphasized.
Since several years after Pathfinders began, the six-year graduation rate has consistently been around 60%, the retention rate around 82%, the fall semester GPA has risen incrementally but steadily so that it is now (2019) 3.0. These changes have occurred despite the fact that average HS core GPA and ACT remained essentially unchanged from the 1990’s until 2014. The percent of freshmen with significant absence problems has averaged around 7% since the early 2000’s. Prior to Pathfinders, 25% of freshmen had absence problems.
The increase of graduation rate from 50% to 60% over the period from 2000 to 2013 means several thousand more students have graduated from MSU than would have with the 50% graduation rate.
The best indicator of student success is class attendance. Pathfinders attempts to reach students early so that support can be offered before the problems are significant. With that in mind, reporting of absences and intervention are not the only factors that have caused these academic indicators to rise; the culture has been transformed among faculty and students at MSU about the importance of regular class attendance in achieving success at MSU. Teachers and Residence Hall Academic Assistants are the main reason the program is successful.