By Chuck Wasserstrom
He needed a moment to let the question sink in and collect his thoughts. Once the moment passed, he waxed eloquent.
The question: “What does being a Moc mean to you?”
For Dr. Yancy Freeman, UTC’s Vice Chancellor of Enrollment Management and Student Success, being a Moc means … well … everything.
“Being a Moc … it really is just the entire evolution of a person,” said Freeman, who is now in his 24th year as a full-time UTC staff member after attending the institution as an undergraduate. “I came to school here at 17; I am now 48 and this is the place where I really grew up. You know, it turned a boy into a man in many ways – because I've been around the campus for so long.
“For me, it really is the complete holistic development of a person meeting one’s life goals. I'm a first-generation college student. Being a Moc, being a part of this campus … it has allowed me to make all of my dreams come true in terms of my professional goals.
“It also continues to pay dividends because my son is a student here, so it's allowed me to share with him the importance of education. College was never a question for him. My wife is a nurse by profession – and she has a master’s degree as well – so for my son and my daughter, there’s never been a question about the expectation and what you're going to do and how you're going to do it – and our support behind it. Being here has given me the opportunity to provide for my family. So I will forever be indebted to what this campus has done for me.”
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Yancy Freeman’s UTC story has taken over 30 years to tell – from a teenager trying to do what no one in his family had accomplished to earning the title of “Doctor” in front of his name.
And it’s a story that continues to add chapter after chapter.
Back in the day – the late 1980s – UTC was still thought of as a commuter school; the Probasco South Campus was still years away from transforming the institution into the “destination” campus it has become today.
But there was something about going to college in Chattanooga that caught the fancy of young Yancy Freeman – a high school student living more than 300 miles west in Memphis.
He was hearing more and more about UTC thanks to the recruiting work being done by Littleton Mason – the school’s assistant dean of students. Mason was from the Memphis area, and he put together bus trips for prospective students from that part of the state to visit the Chattanooga campus.
Some of the students from previous graduating classes before his had picked UTC for college, and Freeman was captivated. “They came back and they talked about UTC and the institution and the fun that they were having while they were here. It started me looking into coming to school here,” he said.
Freeman also was intrigued at the thought of going to school away from home. Just as important, he was driven at the prospect of going to a four-year institution, period.
“I knew I was going to college,” he said. “It's sort of a funny story. I told my mom when I was in the ninth grade that I was going to college and that I was pretty certain that I was going to go away … that I was not going to remain in Memphis. At that point, I had no idea where I wanted to go. I just knew that college was what I wanted to do.
“I went to a college prep high school; it was a public school, but 60-to-70 percent of the students went off to college – so it sort of pre-determined my goal overall. My mom understood the importance of getting an education, although I think she would have preferred that I stayed home and gone to Memphis State. But I was just determined to go away.
“So I ended up in Chattanooga. Neither of my parents had college degrees. I have seven other siblings; I'm number six out of the eight of us overall – and none of my older siblings had college degrees. I was just determined.”
While he still calls Memphis home – “That's where I grew up and where the majority of my family still lives,” he said – it’s been Chattanooga where he came to school, came to work, and raised a family. His wife, Rafielle, is BlueCare Tennessee’s director of quality improvement. Their son, Yancy Jr., just completed his sophomore year at UTC, where he is studying health and human performance; exercise science is his concentration. Yancy Jr. also works as a tour guide in the admissions office and serves as an orientation leader. Their daughter, Camille, is about to start her final year of middle school. “Boy is she excited,” her dad said with a laugh. “She's a senior in middle school … that's what she told me.”
After his arrival at UTC as a freshman, Freeman immediately took to life on campus, immersing himself both in the school work and the social aspect of being away from home. He called the experience “extremely eye-opening” as he kept his eyes open to the world now around him.
Like many other first-year college students away in school, he often found himself phoning home. He was eager to share his school adventures with his mom, Mary Rambert, and let her know he was doing OK.
“My mom was very supportive, but she couldn't really share in the experience and provide guidance because she hadn’t gone through it,” Freeman said. “Luckily, there were really good people here that I found to be great mentors, and who really helped me navigate through the process.”
Freeman was quick to name several people who helped make the college transition smooth – Julius Dodds, who worked in academic retention and as a local area recruiter and who is now the director of academic retention at Chattanooga State Community College; A.J. Range, then the dean of minority affairs; and a pair of professors he studied under, Fouad Moughrabi and Ken Hunter.
“I was always a quote-unquote good student, but navigating college can sometimes be more than just about making good grades,” Freeman said. “It really is about how you make sure that you can go from one point to the next in sort of a seamless process … or if you get stuck, how do you get yourself out of situations that you might not understand.
“I was the type of person who loved being involved. Even in my freshman year, I participated in the Black Student Association and joined a fraternity. I got involved in those activities and it helped me to become more acclimated to the environment very quickly.”
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After receiving his bachelor’s degree in political science in May 1992, Freeman knew he wasn’t finished on the educational front. He began the road to earning a master’s degree that fall; at the same time, he was hired by UTC as an admissions counselor.
For the next six years, he basically spent his time alternating between recruiting in the Western Tennessee region and studying in a Chattanooga classroom – earning his master’s degree in public administration in 1998.
More than just becoming a full-time member of the UTC staff, it was during this time that Freeman knew that the world of higher education was his calling.
“As a first-generation college student and college graduate, I absolutely loved talking to students about coming to college,” he said. “I thought, ‘Man, they're paying me to talk to other students about coming here and talking about the experiences that I had on campus. I get to go talk about that and help students navigate the college process.’
“This is an amazing job, and I knew that I wanted to remain in higher education. Once I saw the first person graduate that I had recruited to the campus, I knew this is where I wanted to be. I remembered going to that person's high school. I remembered talking to that person and the conversation that I had with that person. To see that I had that impact on someone’s life … yeah, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. You know, this really is what I love doing … helping students meet their goals.”
Freeman is accustomed to speaking with prospective students – and their parents – and has been a big part of the growth of UTC both in size and in academic standards.
“I truly and honestly believe this – and I say this at each of the orientation sessions we have for new students and new families who are joining the campus – that people at UTC genuinely do care about the success of our students,” he said. “You see it in the smiles of the students who are walking around. You see it when you meet with faculty and staff and administrators who are on campus. You see the care and concern at UTC and this desire to allow our students to do all that they want to do and to meet their professional lifetime educational goals. It's an institutional effort. It's a campus effort. There are lots and lots of people on the campus that work to support students and make sure they can be successful.
“I think a lot of the out-of-classroom stuff that we do is really, really neat and will set students up for a lifetime of learning. I also think what we do here is to teach people how to think critically; once they leave here, it sets them up for continuous lifelong development. So you begin to gather information while you're here and begin to learn how to think critically about situations, about problems, about creating new opportunities that are there – and that continues to go. If we can spark some interest for a student in helping them to learn or to want to learn while they are enrolled here, we really have done our job.”
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During his time at UTC, Freeman has taken on increased responsibilities in admissions, recruitment, advising, and student success – rising to the level of vice chancellor in December 2017. Through his efforts, Academic Affairs has improved operations for record keeping and registration, financial aid, admissions and student orientation and advising. He has guided the creation of a data-driven advisement process that has increased student retention and success.
Cutting straight to the chase, his role is threefold; it’s all about increasing enrollment, retaining students and graduating students.
“To be honest, it is why we are here,” Freeman said. “It is our goal to make sure that students can meet their educational goals through their enrollment in our campus. For us, it is the completion of a credential, the completion of a degree program. Whether it is a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or a doctorate degree – whatever that might be -- we want to be here and available to them to be able to do it.
“So I get to engage in activities that will help that to happen. Finding those students that would find a great value in the UTC experience – and trying to match them with our campus – is a fun, labor of love for me. UTC will not be the right place for everyone. But for students who want faculty engagement, smaller class sizes, a high level of activity, a high level of engagement, and a college experience located in a metropolitan city … then this is a great place to look.
“For those students who are really looking for what we offer, this is the single best place to come. We're looking for students who have the academic prowess to make it in the classrooms. Of course, we're looking at things like strength of secondary school curriculum and the courses the student has decided to take. We're looking at test scores; we're looking at all of those different facets. But we're also looking for enthusiasm in those students who really want a chance to come here and do really great things. We're looking for those students who are student leaders who will come and enrich our environment.
“Our goal is to be an institution of 15,000 students. We look like we're heading in that direction with our current enrollment now of almost 12,000 students.”
UTC expects to see increases in enrollment for a variety of reasons. Freeman said his office has spread territory funds; they’re traveling to more regional locations to attract students. As part of that, more housing options are needed – and a new 600-bed West Campus residence hall is opening this fall at the intersection of Vine and Houston.
In growing UTC into more of a regional institution, the board of trustees agreed in March 2017 for the school to enroll first-time freshmen and sophomores from the seven counties contiguous to Tennessee in North Georgia and North Alabama. “There are seven counties that touch Tennessee that we offer a discount rate to,” Freeman said. “There are some really big high schools in those counties, and we have many individuals who work in Tennessee and live in those counties. Essentially, they get a 75% discount off of the out-of-state amount. This has become not just the place where they work, but also a more viable option for students to attend college.”
It’s one thing to increase the number of first-year students. It’s quite another to get them to stay. Freeman said the retention piece is a much more challenging component because there is no such thing as a cookie cutter way of doing things. Every student reacts differently to life on a college campus.
“We try to pull together programs that will assist students to help themselves to be successful,” he said. “We have advisors all over the campus that meet with the students on a periodic basis that will do check-ins on them to make sure that they're doing well.
“We do things through our financial aid programs that will assist students who might be struggling financially who want to afford the cost of a college education. We also review our policies all the time to make sure that we don't have policies in place that will obstruct a student’s chance to be successful on campus. The team will laugh at me because I'll say to them, ‘We really just need to get out of our own way,’ and allow students to do what they need to do to progress and to be able to finish.”
Freeman said the campus goal is to increase UTC’s first-year retention rate to 80%.
“Right now it's at 74%, so we've got a little bit of work to do there to increase that rate,” he said. “We would love for the graduation rate to be between 55 and 60%. Right now, it's at 50%.”
But the 74% figure is a huge number. Just a decade ago, the retention rate stood at 61%.
“Much of it has started with advising and the way that we advise students,” Freeman said. “Back then, 10 years ago, we had two professional advisors on campus. We now have 34, and their sole purpose is to meet with students and to advise them about how to take advantage of resources that are available on campus – and helping them navigate through the curriculum at UTC. Increasing the number of on-campus advisors has helped us tremendously because someone is getting up every morning thinking, ‘How do I make sure we connect the dots for students who might be lost?’
“The professional advisors that are in the Center for Advisement talk with students a mandatory four times – twice in the fall and twice in the spring. Each time they meet with a student there are certain things that they want to make sure they are covering so a progression continuum is in place.
“This upcoming fall we're going to do more learning communities – where students are paired with a student with a course in their major – and we’re going to do a freshman seminar course being taught by faculty in that program. It is designed to introduce students to the discipline very early – so if they have questions about what it takes to be successful, we're sharing that information with students at the very beginning. We’re acclimating them to the institution and to the discipline that they've selected at the very beginning, instead of waiting until their sophomore year or junior year.
“We've seen some great increases in the overall numbers of first-time freshmen students. What we’re continuing to do is begin working on the second-year experience, making sure that once we get them to the second year that there is not a lull; that they're working on their resume; and that they’re connecting to their professional organization within their discipline. For instance, if they are interested in social work, we’re asking them, ‘Have you joined the social work club? Have you joined this professional organization that is connected to your discipline so that you can learn more about what you want to do for the rest of your life?’ We’re working harder to make sure they continue to progress through their degree program.”
The final piece of the admissions/retention/graduation trifecta is, of course, crossing the finish line – and helping students navigate through the entire process to get there.
“It's funny … I was just reading a quote from someone who said the graduation part is the most difficult piece because it sometimes can be a race of endurance,” Freeman said. “How do we make sure that we are helping students get to the end?
“We're now doing graduation checks on students when they get to 75-80 percent of their degree program. The records office is going to do a check to make sure students know exactly what they need to do to finish the degree so that it removes all doubt. There is no worse feeling than to get to the end of your program and to think that you're done and then you have another class to take. We try to make sure we are avoiding those sorts of obstacles that are there.
“For students who are in their senior year and they have a small balance, we try to do some rebalancing scholarship dollars to help them. Our ultimate goal is to make sure that they finish. We don't want a small balance to stop them from finishing.”
Freeman has played an integral part in doubling university enrollment numbers for new students while decreasing the time it takes to process admissions applications by 25 percent.
Technology has had a lot to do with decreasing the processing time. That, and “it's really just the basic idea of getting out of our own way,” he said with a laugh. “We made some really simple changes and saw some big increases and big dividends over it. We used to have one person processing all freshmen. So we decided, OK … this is not good planning for us if someone is out or sick. We trained all of the people who process how to do the freshman applications – which allowed us to respond faster to students overall.”
Freeman and his staff also looked at some of the school’s deadline dates and realized that some of those dates were coming up very late in the recruitment cycle. Students had been making final decisions about enrolling at other schools because they hadn't heard back from UTC. “We went back and changed some of those dates and made them a little bit earlier. We just made adjustments,” he said. “Some of those decisions allowed us to grow enrollment overall, and changing some of the pieces has allowed us to increase the speed for processing.”
Freeman also has played a big part in increasing the first-year ethnic minority class to 25 percent of the student body. It’s how UTC initially found him – and how he discovered UTC.
“It has been through some very targeted practices,” he said. “Littleton Mason, who I mentioned earlier, was the first person to do very targeted things. When he wanted to increase the minority population as it relates to African American students on campus, he went to Memphis. That’s how I first learned about this campus. We've continued in that same way to do some very targeted programs to encourage minority students to come here. It’s important that we can show that, ‘Yes, we do have students of color on campus. Yes, we do have faculty of color on campus.’ Because part of this is seeing people who look like them so that they feel like, ‘Yes, I belong. Yes, I can be here. Yes, I can be successful here.’”
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When you think about it, Freeman has a pretty cool narrative he can share.
From first-generation college student to someone with three degrees … from starting out as an admissions counselor to becoming vice chancellor overseeing admissions.
The latest chapter in Freeman’s story took place in May of this year when he completed his dissertation as a candidate within UTC’s Ph.D. Learning and Leadership program. His title is now Dr. Yancy Freeman.
Freeman went back to the classroom in the fall of 2012 in a hybrid UTC program designed for working professionals; classes met on Saturday, while most of the work was done outside of the classroom using Blackboard technology. His doctoral dissertation was about the relationship between traditional student success variables and the retention of the Tennessee Lottery Scholarship.
“There were 10 different variables that I measured to see if there was any correlation to retaining the scholarship … things like race, ethnicity, standardized test scores, admission test scores, high school grade point average, college grade point average, parent-adjusted income,” he said. “There were 10 different variables to see if there was any correlation with retaining the lottery scholarship in the second year, or after the first 24 attempted hours.”
Freeman found that there are three things that have a strong relationship – the test score, the overall college grade point average, and the high school GPA – as well as the number of hours that a student is taking. The more hours the student takes, the more of a relationship there was with retaining a lottery scholarship.
“The reason I picked the topic was that it is very closely linked to what I do in my profession,” he said. “Someone normally in my position wouldn't have the time to sit and really do the analysis that's necessary to understand the student population. I thought if I had to do this, I'll do it on something that will advance the literature, advance the field, but would also help me in moving forward for UTC – sort of advancing what we have to do around student success at UTC.”
Freeman referred to the process as “very rigorous. It's hard to even explain. I will say that I enjoyed the process and that it taught me a lot about endurance and tenacity in a lot of ways, but it's a rigorous process.
“Folks say, ‘How did you do it?’ It's all a blur overall because I just stole minutes when I got any free time. Even when I was eating lunch, I’d take a book or computer, or have an article or something with me all the time that I was reading, or trying to take notes on, or doing whatever. It's a labor of love. Let me say that.
“I'm still pinching myself when folks call me Dr. Freeman,” he said with a laugh. “They might say Dr. Freeman, but I will always be Yancy.”