Student-Centered CALS Advantage

Colleges and universities across the country are shifting to a student-centered approach to help eliminate barriers that impact students inside and outside the classroom.

Since joining the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences one year ago, I have been awestruck by the college’s level of commitment to student development, success and holistic
support. We realize academic performance is not only what happens in the classroom, but also is deeply connected to external factors like family life, health and resource availability.

Last spring, we launched a pilot initiative called, SMART STEPS. SMART is short for Student Management and Academic Response Team. It’s a comprehensive support program designed to provide high-risk students an individualized plan to increase academic performance. Students are required to adhere to specific guidelines including weekly
meetings, goal-setting, academic coaching, tutoring, student counseling and financial support.

We take a holistic approach by addressing students’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills and barriers that impede their success. After one semester, students in SMART STEPS exhibited significant improvement compared to peers who did not enroll in the program. They averaged 0.8 GPA increase above qualifying peers who did not enroll, and 75% successfully completed the program in good academic standing. As a result, we fully adopted the program this fall and have seen a substantial increase in retention.

One student shared: “Having a support system to fall back on when I felt as if I couldn’t do it anymore helped me so much. This program helped me get back on track and get
to the root of my problems, which then helped me succeed in the long run.”

Providing one-on-one, wraparound care allows us to deliver real-time intervention and address student needs before they escalate into larger issues. Often times, we see students struggling with non-cognitive issues such as mental health, managing work and school, navigating campus and utilizing resources. These factors tend to be a stronger predictor of academic performance than cognitive factors alone. By implementing this program, we’re able to provide individualized support and hold students accountable by encouraging them to take ownership of their learning and manage life circumstances.

One student stated: “My retention coach was the most helpful part for me in this process. I needed another person to keep me on track and motivate me.
I really struggled a lot, but she gave me all the tools I needed to succeed. Hopefully I can stay in this program.”

CALS Student Services is more than transactional – it’s a relational space that allows us to be proactive with interventions. SMART STEPS, along with several other programs, has allowed us to have a lasting impact on student success and retention. As stated by one participant, “I would not likely be graduating this semester without this program.”

– Audrey Kennis is the retention coordinator for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences



Donors are helping CALS advisers recognize when and how students need assistance. If you’re interested in supporting the college by proving financial support for adviser training and development; student-support programs like SMART STEPS; or direct support to students via emergency or completion grants contact Andy Zehr, CALS director of marketing and new student programs, at or (515) 294-9123.