Seeing education open up a world of possibility in his own life keeps Alan Byrd eager to help change things for others
Like most people, Alan Byrd has a few stacks of paper on his desk. But one of them isn’t filled with to-do’s – instead it speaks to just how much he’s already done. It’s a cluster of thank-you notes from University of Missouri–St. Louis graduates.
“I feel really fortunate,” Byrd says. “I have the opportunity to help students every single day.”
As dean of enrollment at UMSL, he’s been a pivotal leader for the university on several fronts the past seven years. Recruitment, retention, graduation rates – the priorities on his mind are heavy ones. Yet the joy that Byrd brings to the work is difficult to miss.
For him, it comes down to the individual people he gets to assist each and every day. They bring with them different sets of questions and concerns, unique backgrounds and all sorts of goals and challenges as they think about their futures.
“The ones that really get me are the first-generation college students and the nontraditional students who come back to college after being out for years,” Byrd says. “To help them navigate the university system and earn a degree is very gratifying.
“We also have a lot of students who are single parents who are trying to figure out how to navigate through college while taking care of their children. We just had several nursing students graduate who were the first in their family to go to college – single parents who didn’t think they could do it. To see them be able to finish their degrees and gets jobs that change the trajectory of their lives – that was very exciting.”
The job also feels personal for Byrd, who was the first in his own family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Higher education gave him access “to a whole different word,” he says, and he takes pride and pleasure in providing others with similar opportunities.
That’s particularly true when he thinks about the impact post-secondary education can have in his hometown.
“Being born and raised in St. Louis, I want to see my city do well,” Byrd says. “And I know that the best thing I can do for the city, honestly, is produce more college graduates, especially in underserved areas where people either aren’t going to college or aren’t graduating.”
That dedication to education in the region has now earned him a 2017 Excellence in Education Award from the St. Louis American Foundation, which will celebrate Byrd and seven other recipients at a Sept. 23 gala downtown.
The honor was unexpected and welcome news, Byrd says. But colleagues including UMSL Chancellor Tom George aren’t so surprised.
“We are so fortunate to have Alan as our dean of enrollment at the University of Missouri–St. Louis,” George says. “Not only is he most knowledgeable and a person of great vision and creativity when it comes to recruitment, retention and overall success, he is highly regarded across the UM System and the state of Missouri.”
Byrd first fell in love with the field of recruitment while an undergraduate at Southeast Missouri State University, where he worked as a student tour guide.
“I had planned on becoming either a sports journalist or a sports commentator, but my last semester I did a ton of tours for the admissions office, and I loved doing it,” he recalls. “And apparently I did a good job, because they encouraged me to apply for a full-time position at graduation. So I actually started my career in higher education as a recruiter at SEMO.”
It was his current role at UMSL that eventually led him back to St. Louis, a place where he notes that two-thirds of the available jobs are expected to require a post-secondary degree by the year 2020. With only about one-third of adults in the area currently holding such credentials, there’s a real sense of urgency to Byrd’s efforts at the university and throughout the community.
As co-chair of St. Louis Graduates, a collaborative organization focused on increasing degree attainment for St. Louis adults, he’s focused on that gap more than ever.
“It’s our goal to make sure that everyone has a plan for post-secondary education and a clear road map to get there – not only to go to college but also to graduate,” Byrd says. “We’ve done a pretty good job the last few years of removing barriers for people to graduate from college, but we still have a long way to go to reach our goal. St. Louis has some huge disparities, especially when you look at race and economic class. We want to make sure that we provide opportunities for everyone in our region to attend college.”
And he really does mean everyone.
“I know people will say, ‘College isn’t for everyone,’” Byrd explains. “College, meaning four-year universities, may not be for everyone, but post-secondary education is. Everyone needs to have some type of education beyond high school to compete in the global economy and the workforce of tomorrow.”
At UMSL, Byrd’s primary task has been to stabilize enrollment during a widespread downturn in terms of demographics both in the St. Louis region itself and throughout the Midwest. Most schools in Missouri are shrinking in terms of college enrollment, and Byrd is quick to praise his team for meeting the challenge head on.
“We’ve done a good job, and more specifically I think our progress with retention and graduation rates has been very impressive as well,” he says, reflecting on trends over the last few years. “We are retaining and graduating our students at the highest level that we ever have.
“That in turn actually puts a little more pressure on our recruitment staff, because students are graduating more quickly. And it does wonders for the region, because the St. Louis workforce depends so heavily on our graduates. The more students we graduate, the better it is for the local economy and the local job market.”
A lot of that, Byrd says, has to do with removing barriers to degree completion – the biggest one being cost – with a focus on some key changes in financial aid.
“We realized that we had a ton of working-class and low-income families, students, who were making solid progress academically, but they weren’t being provided with enough financial aid to complete their degrees,” he explains. “So we restructured our financial aid and focused more on providing need-based aid, and as a result we have record numbers of Pell grant recipients graduating from our institution, which has really boosted our graduation rates.”
UMSL has also hired more academic advisers and focused on enhancing the academic advising process, implementing a variety of policies that help steer students toward timely degree completion.
“The investment in need-based financial aid has really been key for us,” Byrd adds, “and due to our demographics we have to be conscious of how much we cost. Because right now, across higher education, cost is the biggest barrier to degree completion.”
Looking ahead, Byrd is hopeful. He says the current recruitment season is wrapping up “pretty strong,” with an expected increase in new UMSL students this fall.
“That is rare in our state right now, so my staff is excited,” he says. “But we know in two weeks we’ve got to start working on the next class. We will take a second to enjoy what we did this year, but we know next year will be even tougher. We have to develop our recruitment plan over the next couple weeks and figure out where we have opportunities for growth next year and where we’ll face challenges.”
One key growth area is Illinois, with prospective undergraduates throughout the neighboring state now able to take advantage of in-state tuition. UMSL is adding an Illinois recruiter to its staff, and there are plans to extend the university’s visibility and brand in an effort to interest more students in crossing the state border.
Wherever they hail from, though, would-be Tritons find a resource in Byrd. He is firm in his belief that every student has talent and that the task of people like him is to help cultivate it and provide opportunities to make the most of it.
“Oftentimes we think about merit by test scores and don’t think about all of the things that go into producing those test scores,” Byrd says. “And a lot of it really has to do with the expectations the students have been placed under and the access to information they have had in school and at home. And that’s what I try to do – give access to information to people who don’t have it.
“At this point in my life, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, especially now that I have kids. It really amplifies my work, because I want everyone to have a plan, goals and access to the information they need to be successful. This will reduce crime and many of the other social ills in our community.”
Alexander, 3, and Aidan, 7 months, do have a little time left to figure things out. But Byrd insists it’s not too soon to be thinking ahead.
“Even though they’re young,” he says, “I can’t wait to start visiting colleges with them and exposing them to different careers and helping them figure out what they want to do with their lives.”
He adds that he’s grateful for his partner in that regard – his wife, Kimela. A local attorney, she sometimes “gets drafted” into his work with prospective students, too, particularly those considering going into law.
“Part of this award goes to her,” Byrd says of the Excellence in Education Award. “She does a lot to support me in this work.”
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