Higher Learning Commission

Neighborhoods: Contextualizing Student Success

Michigan State University

Overview of the Quality Initiative

Michigan State University has created Neighborhoods for the purpose of maximizing undergraduate student persistence, retention, and graduation, i.e., student academic success1. What is a Neighborhood at Michigan State University? We began our conceptualization of Neighborhoods by determining both what they are not and what they are. As with many social science terms, there are common everyday connotations, and then there are scientific definitions which can lead to measurement. The everyday connotation of a neighborhood as a physical location is too limited for our purposes. The suburban connotation of a neighborhood as a place where one simply resides is too limited for our purposes.

We use the term neighborhood as a more complex and integrative concept which includes key functions such as living, learning, working, caring, participating, and contributing as a member of a multicultural community. If one visualizes an urban village with easy connections among the local cultures, schools, economy, faiths, doctor’s offices, and family and social relationships, a very good beginning for understanding Michigan State University Neighborhoods will come into focus. That is, Neighborhoods are much more than the typical living-learning communities developed on many campuses. The Michigan State Neighborhoods have been formed by the intentional inclusion and integration of long standing but heretofore separate administrative, educational, service, and programmatic entities. In addition, the Neighborhoods are multicultural environments with a diversity of “citizen scholars” reflective of Michigan State’s commitment to its land- and world-grant spirit. Each Neighborhood functions as a hub of student activity supported by professional collaborations focused on student academic success. There is a shared commitment to a holistic support structure that can maximize students’ academic success. In short, the Neighborhoods create and provide intentional interventions that are readily accessible to students and offered in a cultural and multicultural context that attends to the important and sometimes difficult transitions in students’ academic lives.

The Neighborhoods at Michigan State University possess a rich diversity in terms of cultural and demographic characteristics of students, staff, and faculty. For many first-year students, their arrival on campus is the first time that they have interacted with people who are not mirrors of themselves. This is the case whether they are from towns and cities across Michigan, the country, or the world. Not only is the Neighborhood experience designed to reinforce academic and career skills and knowledge, necessary but not sufficient conditions for success, the Neighborhood experience is also designed to foster the development of companion skills such as cross-cultural communication, collaboration, teamwork, leadership, and cultural literacy—all necessary for success in today’s world. Intercultural competence is essential if students are to maximize their future opportunities. That is, the Neighborhood commitment to student success will be realized in the growth and development of T-Shaped students2, those having the ability to collaborate with diverse peers and colleagues while developing and utilizing their specialized knowledge and skills. As the Neighborhoods function to provide a holistic and inclusive approach to campus life, they model and teach a holistic and inclusive approach to learning, work, and life.

This Quality Initiative (QI) at Michigan State University began as a pilot in 2010 with one Neighborhood which was comprised of the students, faculty, and staff of one residential area, Hubbard Hall. It was expanded to three Neighborhoods in 20 11-12, each comprised of multiple contiguous residence halls and the students, faculty, and staff that work in these places. As of 2012-13 there are five Neighborhoods which encompass all of the University’s undergraduate residence halls. By 2015-16 Michigan State’s Neighborhoods will have existed in some form for five years. This bold endeavor will be ongoing and will continue to benefit from lessons learned each year which are then applied to improve student success outcomes in the next rendition. As such, we are utilizing a continuous improvement process. This is not an initiative that will have an end point, rather it is an initiative that will continue to evolve and improve. The assessment and evaluation of the Neighborhoods has begun and will continue each year in order to provide information for evidence-based decisions making as we move forward.

Sufficiency of the Initiative’s Scope and Significance

Relevance and Significance

As the pioneer land-grant university, Michigan State began as a bold experiment that democratized higher education and helped bring science and innovation into everyday life. This revolutionary concept became a model for the nation. Over recent decades, Michigan State University has increasingly expanded this bold experiment on a global level, i.e., world grant3. With this expansion there has been a companion commitment to diversity and inter-cultural competence. The multicultural context at Michigan State is comprised of many domestic and international constituents. It is our hope and belief that the Neighborhoods can significantly advance the academic success of all of our students and help close the graduation gaps among students. We once again have an opportunity to pioneer for higher education by developing a model that may be replicated elsewhere to increase student persistence, retention, and graduation rates.

Each year approximately 7,5000 first-year undergraduate students begin the academic year at Michigan State University in residence halls on campus. Approximately another 6,500 undergraduate students live in our residence halls. The vast majority of the remaining 22,500 undergraduate students live in close proximity to the campus and its Neighborhoods. Each of the undergraduate students nOw living on campus is part of a Neighborhood. Going forward, it is expected that there will be some increase in the number of upper-division students residing in the Neighborhoods as well as regular visits by former residents to the Neighborhoods where they have established ongoing connections that provide continuing academic relationships and support for these students. Community building is very much a part of the work of the Neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods reflect an intentional structural, cultural, and interactive intervention and commitment by Michigan State for the purpose of integrating the academic, intercultural, residential, physical, and co-curricular life of undergraduate students to maximize their academic success. Structurally, each Neighborhood has geographically proximate residence halls and a “town square” called an Engagement Center, learning labs, technology, faculty offices, and study and gathering spaces (several are adjacent to new, REAL [Rooms for Engaged and Active Learning] classrooms. These spaces have been specifically designed and built for the Neighborhoods. The Engagement Centers are unique spaces located in each Neighborhood that serve as the main access points to important resources such as tutors, academic advising, health care, and other consultations that help students navigate through their college careers. Culturally, the Neighborhoods are first and foremost academic hubs in which all activities, including fitness classes, exist to support academic success. Using an architectural metaphor, the Neighborhoods are supported and informed by four pillars: academic, health and wellness, intercultural, and residential life.

Previously centralized services have been expanded into the Neighborhoods. For example, each Neighborhood’s Engagement Center includes a Writing Center, a Math Learning Center, an Academic Advising Office, Tutoring Services, a Health Clinic, and Fitness Classes. This is not simply a decentralization of these services, but a holistic integration in the Neighborhoods of heretofore separate services. In addition, a wide range of programmatic initiatives are fostered in the Neighborhoods. A non-exhaustive list of service and program providers includes: intercultural advisors, resident advisors and aids, the Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience student facilitators, liaisons with the living-learning colleges and programs, Core Team members and Pillar Committee members.

Intended Impact

At Michigan State for the past several years, approximately 10% of the entering first-time, full-time students have ended their first semester on academic probation. Typically, approximately 91% of fulltime bachelor’s degree-seeking students are retained from their entering fall semester to the first semester of their second year. For the past several years, the six-year graduation rate for students who began their collegiate education at Michigan State University has been approximately 77%. Further analysis of student data has indicated that there are graduation gaps between students with varying profiles, and that students who go on probation their first semester are less than half as likely to graduate as those who complete their first semester in good academic standing 4. The loss of 9% of each entering class is a metric we wish to improve, even though some of them transfer to other institutions and others return at a later date. Michigan State is determined to improve the retention rate of our students. Furthermore, given that the University admits students whom we believe have the ability to succeed and graduate, through work in the Neighborhoods we are committed to helping all students avoid academic probation, to increasing the six-year graduation rate to >80%, and to significantly reducing graduation gaps.

Michigan State University believes that a bold, wide-ranging intervention into the academic lives of our undergraduate students can and will make a positive difference in their academic experience and success. Indeed, it is a bold move to initiate comprehensive structural, cultural, and interactive changes for all students living on campus. We are not content with incremental experiments, but rather have made a commitment for fast, large-scale, innovative and effective interventions in support of student success.

Clarity of the Initiative’s Purpose

Purposes and Goals

The Neighborhoods have been created to provide connection, coherence, integration, coordination,
articulation, customization, and flexibility of services for the enhanced and meaningful engagement with
students in support of their academic success. These founding principles inform the structural, cultural,
and interactive aspects of each Neighborhood and are the backdrop for all decisions made about our
work in the Neighborhoods.

Through evidence based practice, the Neighborhoods will support students in achieving the following

  • Develop and practice the perspectives, motivations, and skills which promote academic success
  • Become active and engaged learners
  • Become both independent and interdependent learners
  • Participate in and contribute to a multicultural community
  • Develop relationships which promote learning and promote success
  • Develop and practice habits of safe and healthy living
  • Develop and practice leadership skills
  • Refine and reflect on personal goals and purpose

The success of students in achieving these goals, which align with the University’s learning goals, provides the bedrock for the attainment of each student’s academic success and the attainment of institutional goals. The institutional goals fostered by the Neighborhoods are to improve student persistence, retention, and graduation rates.

Evaluation of Progress and Accomplishments

The assessment and evaluation of the work in the Neighborhoods for the support of student academic success is focused on both how to best meet the immediate needs of our students, and on determining what is effective and what is not, so we may make adjustments for maximally successful services and interventions. We are designing and conducting formative assessment methods in order to modify activities to improve student academic success. The feedback information provided by formative methods is important for day-to-day Neighborhood functioning. That said, the assessment and evaluation work inlof the Neighborhoods will also monitor the academic, programmatic, and service outcomes, i.e., summative assessment. While the summative assessment will provide a means for making the Neighborhoods accountable to their purposes and goals, it will also provide data and analysis in support of the continuous improvement of the Neighborhoods.

A Neighborhood Assessment Leadership Team has been formed to develop an assessment plan that will help to determine effectiveness in meeting both student and institutional goals in support of improving undergraduate persistence, retention, and graduation rates. It is a small team of individuals with strong knowledge of institutional research, assessment, and on-the-ground work in the Neighborhoods. The work of the assessment team is being shaped by the logic model of evaluation and the implementation of the assessment plan will begin in the coming semester. The purpose of the assessment will be to collect and analyze data to answer the following fundamental questions derived from this model:

  • Who are our at-risk students?
  • What aspects of the Neighborhoods have the greatest impact?
  • What factors lead to student use of Neighborhood resources, services, and programs?
  • What types of interventions have the greatest positive impact on student academic success?
  • What types of students are helped the most by the Neighborhoods?

The data analysis will both inform the evaluation as well as provide an information platform to revise, reinvent, change, abandon, and create the Neighborhood interventions for student academic success. Neighborhood Policy Leaders, Core Teams, and Pillar Committees are attentive to reviewing lessons learned and best practices in order to continually improve the effectiveness of the Neighborhoods. All data analyses for the assessment will be channeled through these groups for the purposes of informing the analysis and the work in the Neighborhoods.

In order to have an early alert system, i.e., a means to quickly determine which first-year students might need additional support from their Neighborhoods; the University is utilizing MAP-Works. This is a software program that provides academic analytics on each entering student which are then supplemented by data from student surveys and by interactions with Neighborhood colleagues. The MAP-Works dashboard is utilized to create appropriate interventions to support the students. The individual student data is used to respond to the students who are having some difficulties. The summary data from MAP-Works is utilized to change, improve, and better focus each Neighborhood’s services.

Additionally, colleagues overseeing services in the Neighborhoods have created mechanisms to systematically collect utilization data and, where appropriate, this utilization data is collected with unique student identifiers. The utilization data and analyses are being piloted this spring semester and will be fully implemented in the fall semester. Finally, we are in the process of developing a database for students who are on probation during their first year. This will be utilized to both analyze patterns that can inform our understanding of student needs and to design, deliver and improve services to meet these needs.

Evidence of Commitment to and Capacity for Accomplishing the Initiative

Internal and External Support

Within the University’s current strategic planning process, Bolder by Design, there are six imperatives intended to have a strong positive impact on the institution and its academic core. The Neighborhoods align with four of the six; these being to (1) enhance the student experience, (2) enrich community, economic, and family life, (3) increase research opportunities and (4) advance our culture of high performance. Both our President and Provost have stated that the Neighborhoods are key in our work of enhancing the student experience and that they look to the Neighborhoods to create a national model for “creating, organizing, and delivering retention efforts for first-year students.” Recently the Provost appointed four teams to work on major issues related to the strategic imperatives; one of these is that of closing the graduation gap. In giving the charge to this issue team, she put the work of the Neighborhood support model at the center of the University’s efforts.

Groups and Individuals Involved in Implementation

The leadership model for the Neighborhoods is first and foremost one of cross-functional collaboration among administrative partners who are committed to leading by example. The policy, programmatic, facility, and financial leadership is provided by a team of vice presidents from academic affairs, student affairs, and residential & hospitality services who meet weekly to provide oversight and guidance to the Neighborhoods. The senior operational liaison has a weekly conversation with the vice presidents regarding the Neighborhoods and continuous improvement initiatives. This cross-functional, collaborative feedback style is utilized throughout every level of Neighborhood work for dynamic communication.

Interactively, the Neighborhoods utilize multifunctional staffing to serve diverse aspects of student life. This multifunctional staff provides caring and evidence-based interventions for students, as well as bringing together academic advisors, nutritionists, nurse practitioners, tutors, faculty, resident advisors, intercultural transition consultants, etc. into a seamless community which is focused on student academic success. Within each Neighborhood there is a cross-functional Core Leadership Team facilitated by the Engagement Center Director that provides day-to-day oversight of the work in the Neighborhood. Beyond Neighborhood specific interactions, there are the four Pillar Committees that provide leadership for the structural, cultural, and interactive work of all the Neighborhoods for each specific pillar’s focus: academic, intercultural, health and wellness, and residential life. Each Neighborhood responds to the work of the Pillars in somewhat distinctive ways to best align with their local needs and culture.

Committed Resources

In preparation for the launch of the Neighborhoods, our President charged three key administrative areas and their leadership to set forth a plan that would build upon the pilot Neighborhood. The leadership of these three areas (academic affairs, residential & hospitality services, and student affairs) collectively set forth the vision, plans, and resource allocations for the development of campus-wide Neighborhoods. Since the pilot year of 2010-11 when approximately $190,496 was spent on operations and $1,775,596 was spent on capital aspects of the first Neighborhood, the University has made a substantial commitment to our Neighborhoods in terms of human resources, programs, services, and capital investments. The operational (non-capital) expenditures after the first Neighborhood have been approximately $481,231 in 2011-12 for three Neighborhoods and $1,665,555 in 2012-13 for five Neighborhoods. The three-year total for non-capital expenditures is $2,337,282. The subsequent capital expenditures have been approximately $8,941,747 in 2011-12; and $1,836,077 in 2012-13. The three-year total for capital expenditures is $12,553,420. The capital investment in the Neighborhoods by-and-large is complete at this time with the full complement of five Neighborhoods.

Going forward, the annual commitments to the Neighborhoods by the University will be approximately $1,665,555, which reflects this year’s operational expenditures. It is important to point out that, given the collaborative nature and high priority of this endeavor, many offices and areas are making contributions to the Neighborhoods that are not captured in these budget numbers. That said the substantial annual commitment of on average $333,111 per Neighborhood, which breaks down to approximately $222 per first-year student, reflects the importance of this Quality Initiative to Michigan State University. It further demonstrates the University’s passionate commitment to the academic success of our students by creating an early experience on campus to foster long-term success at Michigan State, in their careers, and in their lives.

Primary Activities and Implementation Timeline


Establish the five Neighborhoods; build the first four Engagement Centers
Hire and establish Core Teams for each Neighborhood
Establish the Pillars (academic, intercultural, health and weliness, residential life)
Launch within Neighborhoods: Writing Centers, Math Learning Centers, Academic
Advising, Tutoring, Health Clinics, Fitness Classes, Intercultural Advisors, Multi-Racial
Unity Living Experience, Liaisons with Living-Learning Programs, and many additional
services and programs
Implement MAP-Works and its surveys


Build the fifth Engagement Center
Continue utilization of MAP-Works
Clarify the charges to the Pillars and Core Teams and their important roles in developing
the Neighborhoods
Develop the Neighborhood Assessment Plan
Focus on collaboration, coordination, facilitation, and communication among colleagues
working in and on behalf of the Neighborhoods
Focus on collaboration, coordination, facilitation, and communication to help the entire
University understand the uniqueness, importance and goals of the Neighborhoods


Continue Core Team and Pillar Committee programs and services
Implement the Neighborhoods Assessment Plan
Decide whether we will continue to utilize MAP-Works or replace it with another
dashboard system to help with early alerts for student success
Utilize ongoing qualitative and quantitative informationldata to expand and improve
services for student academic success; all analyzed data reports to be shared with senior
level policy team, Core Teams, and Pillar Committees
Increase First-Year Classes taught in Neighborhoods
Increase faculty involvement in the Neighborhoods through both teaching and research
Develop mechanisms for the Colleges to be more integrated into Neighborhood services

2014 -

Based on the prior year’s experience fine tune assessment plan and the analysis of
assessment data for the Neighborhoods
Determine the best practices from Neighborhood work for improved student persistence,
retention, graduation
Implement all best practices in the Neighborhoods to maximize student academic success
Develop higher education conference proposals to share this model, assessment findings,
and best practice

Persistence/retention defines a student’s continuing enrollment from one semester or year to the next; graduation defines a student’s degree completion at a certain point in time, e.g., fourth, fifth or sixth year.

2 For a discussion of this concept see http://coevolving.com/blogs/index.php/archive/t-shaped-professionals-t-shaped-skills-hybrid-managers/

3 Lou Anna Kimsey Simon, President, Michigan State University, Embracing the World Grant Ideal, 2009.

4 Internal reports show that of the students who went on probation after their first semester only 40% graduated, while 82% of those who were in good academic standing after their first semester did graduate.



Institution Contact

Sue A. Blanshan, Senior Advisor to the Provost

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