In the Spotlight: Steve Neer, Assistant Vice Provost of Advising and Retention
by Mark Donahue
NLU has a unique student body, made up of everything from undergraduates just out of high school to working people looking to change careers, all spread out over multiple campuses and online. Serving this diverse group can sometimes be a challenge — and a joy.
Just ask Steve Neer, Assistant Vice Provost of Advising and Retention. He oversees a group that includes Advising, Career Development and Prior Learning Assessment. Assisting students and moving them toward degree attainment and future careers is the mission every day his staff walks in the door.
"I think one of the goals is to solve a lot of those problems that get in our way to really improve the process for students and make sure they have a better sense of community at the university — feel like they have a support system," Neer said.
Neer came to NLU more than six years ago with a background in higher education, having previously worked at several institutions, including Ohio State University, where held roles at different levels of advising.
When he arrived, Neer first directed undergraduate advising, which was new at the time. Before, faculty had done student advising, but over time it made more sense to give the task to full-time professionals. Neer said it was exciting to launch the service, and several of the staffers from the very beginning are still with the department.
Fast-forward and Advising at NLU has grown. The office now covers not only undergrads but graduates students in NCE. Staff advisors help students plan out the long-term completion of their degree, helping them get to their goal as quickly and with as few obstacles as possible.
Through reorganization over the past year, Neer now has Career Development and Prior Learning Assessment under his umbrella as well. It's part of a larger effort to streamline and simplify student services. PLA helps students get credit for life experience, potentially shortening their time to degree, while a more integrated Career Development department gives them the skills they need to go out and find jobs when they graduate, Neer said.
He believes changes like these have been good, but there is always room for improvement. To that end, staff from different student-facing departments will be meeting soon to look at ways to better integrate and make a more cohesive team.
"If a student comes with a problem, we don't have to say, 'Oh, well that's not my area — go talk to Jim in student finance,'" Neer said. "We can work amongst ourselves to solve that problem and then get back to the student with a response so they don't necessarily have to do so much running and have confusion."
Neer admits that some of NLU's greatest strengths — its age diversity and its wide campus coverage — can produce further challenges for student services, but each department is working to meet them even more effectively.
For example, with students spread out across multiple campuses as well as online, Neer said Advising has begun a preliminary look at Web-based orientation programs to increase orientation attendance so students can begin their studies with a strong baseline of information.
Having a mostly adult working student population leads to challenges — and a search for new answers — as well. Adult students have more factors that can derail their studies — moving, marriage and new children, financial issues, to name a few. Neer said NLU has given some early looks at student-tracking software, which could help raise flags to advisors if, for example, a student hasn't registered for class or an online class hasn't been attended.
The goal is retention and moving the student forward to success. It's an on-going effort for all higher education institutions — and something Neer keeps a close eye on.
"I think we've done well, but I think for us to improve, we need a more formal strategy around keeping students here and how we're going to retain them," he said.
Some strategies will come from a new retention task force appointed by President Nivine Megahed that Neer co-chairs with Generosa Lopez-Molina, Vice Provost of Academic Programs and Faculty Development. The task force is currently working on a formal report it will release by the end of June on the state of retention at NLU, citing areas that need the most attention. That plan will then turn into an action team to tackle the next steps in the summer and fall.
Beyond this, Advising has been working to make things even easier for students, who can now register for an entire academic year at once, rather than by quarter. Neer said his office is also planning in the coming year on converting more academic programs to a system in which students will register just once to cover their studies all the way through to graduation.
Tackling challenges and trying out new ideas bring Neer a lot of satisfaction in his role. He likes working with his dedicated staff, as well as faculty and the other student services directors. For all of them, he said, it's about the pursuit of one ultimate goal.
"I think that's why a lot of us stay here and keep working with the students and take a lot of pleasure in just seeing them succeed," Neer said. "Because we know they have a lot of challenges in their own life — they've had to overcome a lot even to stay here — and so to get them to the end and see them achieve their goal I think is really exciting for a lot of us."