He’s not quite a millennial, having been born at the tail end of Generation X, but RIC’s new Vice President for Student Success Jason L. Meriwether is millennial-minded.
A native of Guthrie, Kentucky, Meriwether is a tech-smart leader, with the energy and passion of a seasoned coach. He’s innovative, dynamic and motivational. He’s well-versed enough in the language of digital media to engage millennials in online communities and he’s dynamic enough to engage them on the ground.
“I’ve never met a faculty or staff member like him,” said RIC student Destin Kowrati Bibemi.
Bibemi, a track athlete and freshmen orientation leader, first met Meriwether when the VP was fresh on campus.
“I told Dr. Meriwether how I wished the campus felt more alive and had more student activities,” Bibemi said. “He asked me what activities I wanted to see on campus and how I wanted to make them happen. He said it’s important not to just hold a dream in your hands in the hopes that it’ll come true. You have to take action on it.”
“I left his office feeling like I could accomplish anything,” Bibemi said. This past fall, the junior joined the Kappa Sigma fraternity and helped form a new coalition on campus – “the brotherhood.” “It’s not the official name,” Bibemi explained, “but I consider all of the members my brothers.” The group consists of male students of color who have as their mission to improve campus social life and to reach beyond the borders of the campus to give motivational talks at elementary, middle and high schools.
Meriwether also offered him a work-study job in his office. Bibemi, who is majoring in marketing, smiled and said, “We’ll be working side by side.”
Bibemi is only one of many RIC students and staff who have been on the receiving end of Meriwether’s enormous ability to empower and his unerring faith in the capacity of ordinary people to make change.
His reputation, in fact, precedes him.
Prior to joining RIC’s leadership team in July 2017, Meriwether was vice chancellor for enrollment management and student affairs at Indiana University Southeast – named one of the Most Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs by “Diverse Issues in Higher Education” in 2015, 2016 and 2017. He is also former vice president of student engagement and enrollment management at Fisk University, where he served as dean of student engagement, assistant dean of student affairs and adjunct professor of psychology.
With expertise in the affairs of students, he and his team at RIC are redefining what it means to deliver quality and robust programming to improve the student experience.
“Our programming will expose students to diverse ideas that broaden their perspective and prepare them to be successful in a global society,” stated Meriwether. “In February, we brought in guest speakers Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcom X’s daughter; and Holocaust survivor Eva Kor.”
“These programs will also complement the academic experience by elevating discussion and creating robust discourse,” he said. “Ultimately, our students will be better prepared to contribute to society and to be collaborators or partners in their communities. Faculty will want their students to attend these events, alumni will come back to campus to see them and the local community will be drawn to visit our campus.”
Yet engaging students is only one aspect of Meriwether’s job. His overarching role, and the one for which he was hired, is to ensure that all RIC students earn their degrees at Rhode Island College.
“Everything I do, such as elevating programming, is designed to impact and improve student completion,” he said. “We want students to complete their degrees here. That’s student success for us.”
Meriwether believes that in order for an institution of higher education to be successful, students must be engaged through face-to-face interaction and on their preferred platform – digital media. The other critical key, he said, is understanding the power of data.
Meriwether brings to RIC expertise in “data mining” and analytics. Data has been identified as one of the major trends driving change in the 21st century. Our era has been variously called “the data revolution,” “the era of big data” or more simply “big data.”
Data itself is not new. People have always generated data and used it to inform decision making. What has changed is the volume of data we generate due to the increasingly digital way we interact with the world.
While businesses and other sectors have been using big data to improve services and increase profit for years, higher education, “a data-rich sector that generates and uses enormous volumes of data each day, has not yet capitalized on the enormous opportunities presented by the data revolution and is lagging behind other sectors in this area” (Higher Education Commission, 2016).
Meriwether is here to help RIC harness those opportunities. “Data drives all institutional decisions,” he said. “Data forecasts the future, the budget, the enrollment. Data drives how funds are allocated.”
Data can also show how engaged students are with their courses and with their institution, he said. Data can help identify students who are not engaged and are likely to drop out. By intervening before the situation escalates, an institution is more likely to improve the success of its students.
“We’re in a competitive market,” said Meriwether. “If we don’t understand our customers, they will vote with their feet and go elsewhere. We can no longer say it’s the students’ responsibility to navigate their own way through college. We must put systems of support in place from the moment they are admitted until they graduate.”
On a daily basis, Meriwether “mines” data from the 17 offices he oversees, he conducts analyses and makes projections. Recently, his team targeted the decline in spring enrollment. After mining data from the past five years, they partnered with RIC’s Office of College Communication and Marketing (OCCM) on an aggressive ad campaign to promote spring registration.
“We designed banners and signs and placed them all over campus,” said Director of OCCM Chad Minnich. “We posted a dedicated announcement on RIC’s homepage. We ran numerous ads on social media. And we tracked all the interactions with the ads. We found many shares, views and likes by students. In fact, we found three times as many interactions with the ad than there had been last year.”
By the first week of registration, enrollment had risen to meet Meriwether’s projection. “At one point, registration was up by more than 500 students compared to a negative 700 the same time last year,” he said. By engaging students on the ground and on their preferred platform (social media) and by using the power of data and analytics, “we were able to recapture students for the spring semester,” said Meriwether.
RIC President Frank D. Sánchez praised the effort: “Vice President Meriwether has made an impressive impact on our enrollment and recruitment efforts, which are key areas of focus for the college. He is particularly adept in the use of technology as it relates to the overall student experience and has transformed the way we engage with our students.”
Meriwether works with a team of 17 offices within the Division of Student Success:
- Academic Support and Information Services
- NCAA Athletics and Recreation
- Career Development
- Counseling Center
- Financial Aid
- First Year Experience
- Health Services
- Learning for Life
- Office of Academic Support and Information Services
- Preparatory Enrollment Program
- Residential Life and Housing
- Student Activities & Greek Life
- Student Community Government
- Student Union
- Upward Bound and other TRIO programs
- Veterans Resource Center
All of these offices collect data on current and prospective students to inform the way RIC designs and offers services. Meriwether has also instituted the culture of sharing data across offices in order to manage data more effectively and to make use of the expertise of every member of the team.
“Ultimately, the refining of our work, the new initiatives and the re-imagining of the way we deliver services,” he said, “are all designed to improve outcomes for student success, which means retention, persistence and graduation for every student who comes to Rhode Island College.”
Jason L. Meriwether earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from the University of Louisville (2001); his Master of Arts degree in psychology from Fisk University (2007); and his Ph.D. in educational administration, with specialization in higher education leadership, from Indiana State University (2016). He also earned a certificate from the inaugural Academic Leadership Academy at The Pennsylvania State University Center for the Study of Higher Education (2011).