Community, Higher Education, Resilience

A Plan of Action

We are going to have a retreat. Yes, that is the next step for WCSU, a retreat to help us sort through what we are doing now and determine opportunities for a better future. As I made the announcement, I could hear both the collective groan and the impatient calls for a concrete strategy for improvement. We have had retreats before, and strategic plans, and discussions about curriculum, or advising, or even branding, but we keep ending up in the same place. That same place is characterized by small, isolated moves that do not transform the whole. We need to transform the whole.

I understand the collective sigh about the notion of a retreat. From the perspective of the campus community the retreats are not leading to action. That is not quite true. There has been action attached to both the Strategic Plan and the Budget Retreat that occurred just before the pandemic. For my own sanity, I must list a few of those actions.

Goal one of the Strategic Plan asked us to grow our support for a diverse community of learners. To that end we’ve solidified the FY program, added a peer mentor program, and transformed our Education Access Program. These moves positively impacted our graduation rates (pre-COVID) and showed signs of supporting better retention. We hope to see a larger impact now that we are fully operational again.

The other component of that diverse community of learners was a focus on adults. We have done a lot around graduate programs and most recently received approval from our accreditor to expand our online offerings. This will strengthen the opportunities we have available for returning undergraduates. We plan to launch options for that group in the fall.

Goal two asked us to focus on our processes and services for a diverse community of learners. COVID-19 helped us accelerate this work tremendously. Students can now access most services remotely, thus allowing them to get support at the time they need it, instead of between 8:00-4:30. Digital forms & signatures, remote access to advising, tutoring, career support, registration, and financial services all make our students’ lives better.

One other component of goal two (and part of goal one), focused on career education. We improved the offerings in our Career Success Center, with new technologies, trainings, and access to remote internships. We also added career education courses (on a pilot basis), as we had planned in the strategic plan action steps. Evaluation of their impact is next.

Goal three focused on community pride. Several efforts occurred that should be acknowledged. First, we did increase weekend events for our residential students, and we offered more social events for faculty and staff pre-pandemic. We hope to bring them back soon. And the long awaited decision about a new mascot is now complete. Go Wolves!

Goal four focused on branding. We took some initial steps with the help of a consultant, which resulted in new colors and some improved consistency in materials. The recent hiring of new Director of Marketing and Communication should jumpstart this initiative. I can already see an impact on our website.

Goal five focused on creating a self-sustaining financial model. We made some strides in evaluating a limited number of academic programs, but everything else stalled on this one. More focused action must take place now.

There was a budget retreat (pre-pandemic) that included representatives from all campus constituencies. That meeting confirmed much of what the Strategic Plan had outlined. There was general agreement that we should grow graduate programs, focus on adult learners, focus on supporting some of our students who meet admission requirements but need extra attention, find a way to re-imagine summer, and work on become an HSI. It also focused on some cost-cutting measures, but the ideas in that category were few and far between. The items focusing on graduate and adult learners have been underway. The rest has stalled.

I recount all of this because I recognize just how exhausting the notion of a retreat without action sounds. The truth is that there has been action, but the impetuses behind that action and the results have not been well communicated. That is something that is going to have to change this time around. The commitment to action is of the utmost importance for us. Everyone will need to play a part, and everyone will need to be on the same page as to what is happening when.

So, for this retreat, the goal is to establish a plan of action for WCSU. We will first take the time to review the realities of our position. We’ll examine the costs and results of all that we do and, I hope, come to a full understanding of our place in the higher education context right now. Then we will get to work. That work will involve focused conversations about what we can grow and what we should stop doing. We will need to reimagine how we function as an organization and where we might change our structures to improve that function and/or gain efficiencies and reduce costs. We will try to determine a campus focus that helps us carve out our own special place in the higher education ecology of our region. It will be a very busy two days.

The result of this retreat must not be a report. It must be a plan of action that will move us forward together. It must include a clarity of purpose and definitive steps to achieve that purpose. It must describe a path first to stability and then to prosperity. The full community must endorse the plan so that we can move forward together. The retreat is necessary for the development of this plan. The action is necessary for our survival.

Inclusion, Resilience

Award Season Reimagined

It is mid-April and the time for awards is upon us. Students have worked hard, and faculty are eager to recognize them. We have department awards for outstanding work in the discipline. There are honor societies for top students in the major. There are research awards to dole out at our annual event – Western Research Day. Students are vying for scholarships for the coming year and the selection of commencement speakers from the student body is now complete. These are really fun days.

But I must admit there are some nagging thoughts in my mind. As wonderful as it is to recognize the hard work of our most accomplished students, these students usually win multiple awards. The criteria for recognition focus on things like GPA, great projects/performances, or dedicated service to our community. Students who are able to do this generally come to us with strong study skills and habits for success in the classroom and/or without the need to work 30 or more hours per week. When you peruse the list of winners each year, most are also in our Honors Program, which usually means this is not their first scholarship or award, but one of several. I’m exceedingly proud of them; they are a wonderful group of students. Still, I worry about all of the efforts and accomplishments that go unrecognized.

Just before the start of the pandemic, our university established a fund for emergencies. This is a pool of money for books, transportation (flat tires), food, and other miscellaneous items that trip up our neediest students and keep them from success. This initiative is so important because so many students disappear for small dollar gaps. Big scholarships are wonderful, and they provide access to education that is so important for a fair and equitable society, but there do not usually address moments when students have to choose between class and work, course materials and food, studying and housing. It is these choices that jeopardize semester or degree. This fund relies on donations and it there is always a need for just a little more. As I think about places for our investments, the short-term awards for those in need, I know this one has high value.

When I consider the availability of emergency funds, I also consider what those students on the financial margins are juggling. I have written before about how work demands can undermine classwork. What about the rest of it? You can’t spend much time in clubs if you have to work all the time. There is no time to volunteer if you are struggling to make ends meet. It is a challenge to do outstanding research, when you’re just trying to get through your classes in the face of external challenges. And don’t get me started about unpaid internships. I’m sorry, this award system is rigged.

So, after we build up a robust fund for emergency funding gaps, I think it might be a good idea to focus on a few more awards for the students who are usually overlooked during awards season. Here are my suggestions:

The We Believe in You Award: This award is for students with GPAs of 2.0 or higher who have earned 15 credits in a semester. So many of our students drop courses to salvage their GPAs, but if there was a reward for persisting, perhaps they’d stay enrolled in that course they are just barely going to pass. Fifteen credits a semester is the right pace to graduate in four years, and getting it done in a timely manner will save students money overall. I say we reward this achievement with $500 dollars off of the next semester’s tuition every time a student meets this standard. It recognizes hard work and might help us keep a few more students on track for a four-year degree.

The You Can Do it Award: This award is for students who manage to get off probation after a rough semester. This award is not dependent on the number of credits because sometimes students have to slow down to get off probation. But after that success, we will award the student one free class during the summer or intersession to catch up on some of the credits lost during their recovery semester. The great thing about this is, if the student sustains their recovery, they can then qualify for the We Believe in You Award the next semester. It is double encouragement to get back on track and stay there.

The Amazing Juggler Award: This award is for students who managed to work nearly full-time, stay on track with at least 12 credits a semester, stay off probation, and still participate in one co-curricular club or department initiative. In this case, a $500 cash award is in order. These students deserve a week off.

Don’t worry, I still want to reward those students who meet the traditional criteria for outstanding. Top GPAs, impressive research and service should still get their due. The students in this category have worked hard and contributed much to our community. We rely on them for their talents, insights, and engagement with life at WCSU. They are peer mentors, service leaders, and often recipients of prestigious external awards like the Fulbright. Excellence deserves to be recognized.

Improving and succeeding in the face of very difficult challenges also deserves to be recognized. Whether those challenges are driven by financial constraints or by uncertainty about college overall, the fact that students overcome them should be recognized and celebrated. This isn’t an “everybody gets a trophy” scheme; it is an equity scheme that recognizes that students are facing very different conditions for learning.

We have big dreams for all of our students, but the most important one of all is that they reap the benefits of earning their degrees. These additional awards might just help a few more of them get there.

Higher Education, Resilience

A United Vision

As I drove to work this morning, I was overcome with concern for the future. Like many universities in the Northeast, we are trying to navigate the “demographic cliff” – long projected and clearly already here in Connecticut. Projections for high school graduates in the region continue to drop for the foreseeable future, and we have no choice but to re-think what we do. This re-thinking of what we do is not in our nature.

Well, that isn’t fair. We actually re-imagine courses and majors on a regular basis. Our program reviews and annual assessments drive some changes, emerging technologies and industries drive others. Indeed, in the last five years – un-slowed by the pandemic – WCSU has added six new graduate degrees – all designed to prepare students for jobs that are in-demand in the region. We also re-imagined our education degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels to help meet the demand for, not just subject matter expertise, but also regional need for support for English Language Learners, and advanced certifications that support career advancement. We also closed two graduate degrees that were not attracting enough students. This was hard, but we did it.

At the same time, several of our undergraduate degrees have been re-imagined. Accounting, for example, has focused on tools for data analytics. Justice and Law Administration is adding a homeland security option. Social Work has strengthened its focus on social justice. Courses are regularly updated, and faculty have added new topics that speak to changes in student interests. History, Anthropology/Sociology, and Political Science have all added courses that call attention to the many peoples and voices that should be represented in a quality undergraduate degree. Important topics like Undocumented Migration, Race and Power in US History, The Irish in America, Model UN, Public Anthropology and Sociology. These additions also required a hard look at under-subscribed courses and decisions to eliminate some offerings.

We are also working hard to re-imagine the balance of online versus on-ground courses we offer. At the graduate level, most programs are now online or hybrid. With a focus on working adults, this transformation has been necessary to help them succeed while juggling jobs and families. We had been moving this way slowly, but the pandemic accelerated our path. At the same time, we identified several undergraduate degrees that could be good opportunities for students seeking degree completion options. Last week we had great news from our accrediting body that will allow us to move forward in offering these online degree completion options.

No, we are not complacent or even particularly slow moving. We have been working hard as part of our regular curricular review processes to evolve to meet the needs of our students and to broaden our offerings for adult learners. All of this has been happening slowly and steadily as a result of our last strategic plan. Unfortunately, our efforts – abundant as they may be – have not kept pace with the demographics. We are in a jam.

Although we are excellent at re-thinking things in constrained spaces (courses, majors), we are less adept at evaluating the full scope of what we do. Despite several recent attempts to work across departments, schools, and divisions, we are siloed.

  • Four separate schools have four separate visions of the university. None of those visions include perspectives from Student Affairs or Enrollment Services. How can we compete for a dwindling number of students without a unified vision?
  • Our student supports are distributed across three divisions, with limited coordination of efforts, and despite intense effort, with limited effect. How can we improve our retention and graduation rates without a unified plan?
  • Our campus is split between two locations, and the strains on one are different from those on the other. Yet, the use of these spaces has not been thoroughly aligned with projected enrollments, costs of degrees (including the types of spaces necessary to support them), costs of student support services and student activities delivered on two campuses. How can we build efficiencies in our operations without a thorough review of everything and a will to do things differently?
  • The coordination of schedules, the most basic of requirements for student success, eludes us every semester. Walking through our classroom buildings tells the tale. It is a sea of over specialized rooms that are empty far more than they are occupied. How can we build schedules that are both cost effective and easily navigable by students, without taking a more centralized view of our scheduling processes?

These are the conversations we have been unsuccessful in navigating. We try in fits and starts, with ad hoc committees, special initiatives, and even in developing our strategic plan, but somehow it just doesn’t come together or stay together. This big-picture thinking is not well-defined in our governance processes and routines. Indeed, those documents are really designed to keep our silos in place. It is not necessarily intentional, but it is the result. Those silos are not working for us. It is from this larger perspective that the real re-thinking has to take place.

I think we are ready to do this work together. I am excited by the possibilities the important conversations ahead might reveal. But whatever we discover together, the most important result must be a united vision and a map to achieve that vision quickly. A united vision is essential to our future: separate initiatives are no longer serving us well.

Anti-racist policies, equity

Unintended Consequences

For the last two weeks I have been having conversations with students who are struggling. This is typical this time of year, when the realities of the midterm grades sink in and the time to final projects and exams grows short. As in prior years, a persistent theme emerged – work responsibilities and student responsibilities were in competition. Eating trumps homework (as does having a home) so work is winning. In every case the students had fallen behind in a number of classes and it was unclear whether they could catch up. In every case, I did not have a good list of solutions for them.

When this happens, I go the typical list of options. We talk about support services (tutoring and counseling). When students get to this point, it is usually counseling that they need. They are overwhelmed, not incapable of college-level work. We talk about the strategic use of withdrawing from courses, although I emphasize that this should be a last resort. Our students have until well after midterms to withdraw from any course. I always encourage them to wait until the last possible day to do so, just in case things turn around. We talk about worst case scenarios like university suspension for not meeting the minimum academic standard (a 2.0 GPA) and how to recover if that happens (our Fresh Start Policy). This is not fun for students or for me. I am striving for kindness and support, with a healthy dose of reality.

But in the most recent conversations two policies struck me as worthy of my attention. One is within the campus control, the other needs the focus of the Federal Government.

The first thing that strikes me as very problematic is that students are opting for the withdraw option too often. This is a natural decision when students see an F in their future. It shouldn’t be so natural for all of the other grades. Unless a student is in a major that requires a minimum grade in a course, it is better to take the D and keep the credit. But the related hit to the GPA often drives students to the W option. Unfortunately, this practice puts students behind in accumulated credits which can impact opportunities to register. The later registration date (dates are based on credits earned) makes it less likely that they will find the courses they need for the next semester, putting them out of sequence and farther behind. If Ws are opted for too often, then those same students might fail to meet the pace standard (number of credits accumulated per year), and this will impact financial aid.

So, how do we fix this? One place I think we might start is with our pass/fail policy. As it stands right now, students must declare pass/fail well before midterms. I see no good reason for this. Why not align it with the last day to withdraw? This gives students time to see if they can succeed, attempting to earn a strong grade from day one, but having an out if they cannot do so. Students who need a specific grade in a critical prerequisite course won’t be able to use the pass/fail option, but in the early years of college, when this is option can be most urgent, that only includes a few courses. Pass/fail doesn’t affect the GPA, so even if the student earns a D, the pass is a win.

That part is pretty uncontroversial (I think), but the next part is more contentious. The current policy states that only electives may be taken pass/fail. Why not allow two general education courses to qualify as well? General education, by its very design, asks students to take classes in topics that they are not necessarily attracted to or comfortable with. By definition it focuses on breadth and tasks students with grappling with ideas and processes that are not typical of their major discipline. I think this is a wonderful thing, but I know that those courses outside of a student’s comfort zone are not always places where they are able to earn their best grades. What would be the harm in letting a few of these be pass/fail?

I know some will say that students won’t try as hard if they have this option. I’m not sure that is true, but with the extended time until decision-making, maybe a few of those math-phobic or writing-phobic or creativity-phobic students will wait and see. Maybe they’ll find out they are better at a subject than they realized and save that pass/fail for something else. In the meantime, perhaps it will keep a few more students from (over)using the W option. Maybe, just maybe it will help our students.

The second thing, which really must be addressed in state and federal government regulations, is the way we have designed financial aid, bundled tuition, and privileged the students who can work less and go to school more. In my conversations with students who have been overwhelmed with work and school demands, it is clear to me that they would have done better if they had taken 3-4 courses instead of 5. But at three, they have a reduced financial aid package, so that won’t work. (They are working; they need funding). At four classes (12 credits), they get the financial aid package, but end up penalized for not keeping pace for a four-year degree. In addition, they are likely to have to pay for summer courses or an additional semester. This means that my neediest students will end up paying more for college. This seems like a policy in need of an anti-racist policy review.

Why anti-racist? Well, students with high financial need are not necessarily students of color but they are disproportionately so. Looking at how these policies replicate structural inequities is important to understanding their severity. When we look at the ways in which our bundling and pacing rules disadvantage students with fewer resources, we see a structural problem that replicates biases in higher education overall. Students with less money, and who therefore must work a lot, are conscious of the bargain of the bundle (12-18 credits are one price) and don’t want to miss out on that perk. But the workload is too much, and some end up failing, withdrawing, and sometimes academically dismissed. Then they have to re-take courses to get back on track. Ironically, they end up paying more for college than if they had just taken fewer courses in the first place. If they do, they know they will pay more for college, and it feels like an unfair bargain. The cycle continues.

The bundling and financial aid problems are wrapped up in so many interwoven regulations that it is very hard to untangle. I am looking to Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona to help us with this one. We can do a little at the state level, but the bigger picture is federal, and this is urgent.

We often build policies with unanticipated consequences. Our pass-fail policy wasn’t meant to encourage students to withdraw from courses, but I think it inadvertently does. Certainly, we wanted financial-aid to help the neediest students, not encourage them to do more and succeed less. The existing policies were developed to help, not harm. Nevertheless, now that we see the consequences that we had not anticipated, perhaps we can take steps to improve them. I think we can.

Evaluation, Growth Mindset

Staring at the Data

Let me give it to you straight – WCSU is struggling to improve our retention rates. As long as I have been at this university (since 2012), we have been trying to figure out why so many students leave prior to degree completion and why so many leave after the first year. We have tried numerous strategies, each time hanging our hopes on a new effort, hoping to crack the code. Here is the list, since 2012:

We had a limited FY program (not required, so only partial enrollment). Part of that program in my first two years here included cohorting of classes for FY student (they took three together). Though the idea was a good one, it did not have the desired effect. Without full community backing, the impression among the students was that they were being punished in some way. Among the students involved it had a (very small) negative impact on retention. We stopped doing that.

We now have a full FY program (required as part of our general education curriculum). Departments have developed courses that act as extended orientations to the discipline, which seems to have improved our students time to degree completion (that number has been moving up from 48.9% to 53% starting with the 2012 cohort). This, combined with published four-year plans and a general education curriculum that has fewer hidden requirements than the prior version, all seem to be moving us in the right direction on graduation rates.

Unfortunately, the FY program and the related efforts did not improve our retention rates which hovered around 73% for years, with one up-year – we hit 75.5% in 2019, only to crash to 69.9% in 2020. That is definitely a COVID impact. We’ll see how recovery goes.

I’ve been paying attention to our data, and the number one predictor of student retention at WCSU is High School GPA. Students with an 85% or higher high school GPA tend to be retained in the 80% or higher range (often as high as 85%, which is a great number for a regional public comprehensive university). That number drops immediately at 84% high school GPA (down 6-10%) and with a pretty linear correlation with each point dropped. A perfectly nice B/B- high schooler is at a 10% or higher risk of being lost in the first year than the solid B/B+ or higher. This data isn’t just WCSU, it is a national trend. This is data we can act upon.

And we have. We’ve launched a peer mentor program to address students in that B/B- category. We’re hoping just a little support from their friends will help them stay. A group of folks from tutoring, the library faculty, the first-year coordinator, academic advising, orientation, and our alternate admissions team gathered together to make a plan. They agreed on a training plan for the peer mentors and recruited a diverse group of students to do this outreach. They are now analyzing what worked and where to improve for next year, and the team is expanding. We won’t know the impact on retention until the fall, but this work has been exciting, and it feels good to take action and measure results.

With this program launched, there is more data to consider, and it is time we do so. The director of institutional research has been running some queries on a few areas variables that seem to be related to retention. The two reports he just sent my way were startlingly clear. High school GPA is predictive across majors (not just as a general indicator of losing a student): the higher percentage of students in the major with an 85% high school GPA or above, the higher the retention rate. Not surprising, based on what we knew before this point, but here is where it gets interesting. There is a striking exception to this relationship, and it occurs in a major that is organized as a very close cohort. The students who started in that cohort, and were not fully successful in their original major, stayed at WCSU even when they had to change their major.

What can we do in light of this data? Perhaps a deeper dive into the reasons why some degrees are attracting more students with lower High School GPAs and making a more specific series of supports in those majors? Maybe. Or maybe we should think about how to create cohorts in programs where they aren’t naturally occurring. Maybe this is the glue that will help the students succeed. With all of the national data the links student persistence and transparent pathways through degrees, cohorts might help us focus those pathways even further. For a majority commuter campus, cohorts might also help our students connect with peers and feel connected to the community. Cohorts provide exciting possibilities that I’m keen to explore with my colleagues.

The second piece of data was about math. Math success is not a new problem and our math department has tried numerous strategies to try to improve student outcomes. They are working hard, incorporating new technologies and trying new approaches. Nevertheless, we have a persistent problem.

A review of five years of data shows us the following:

  • A shocking number of students are placed into Intermediate Math (credit bearing, pre-general education math): Nearly 50%. This is true for students with above an 85% HS GPA and those below it.
  • Students who earn a D, F, or withdraw from any math class in their first year are retained at a rate between 63-68%. Those who happened to fail Intermediate Math with embedded remediation are retained at a rate below 50%.
  • Students who fail any math class in their first year are 20% more likely to have a high school GPA below 85% than those who pass.
  • Students who pass any math class (including the one with embedded remediation) are retained at about an 82-84% rate.
  • The retention rate for students who take no math class in their first year, drops back down to a 70%.

Given all of this, we might want to re-think our math strategies. We need to dig deeper into the patterns of who is ending up with the D, F, or W in those first courses, to see if we have a few other predictors besides HS GPA. We appear to need better placement strategies than those we are currently using. We might even need a prep-course, prior to placement testing. We probably need a differentiated delivery of our curriculum based on a combination of variables, not just our placement tests. We may need some kind of intersession process to keep students from failing or withdrawing in the first place. We’ve tried variations on each of these in the past, but like the FY program done half-way, it hasn’t worked fully. It is time to focus and develop a plan for better math outcomes. Those outcomes are so directly related to our retention rates that it is imperative that we do so.

Yes, I’m staring at the data and trying to imagine next steps. I know I have a community of colleagues who want more for our students. I know I have a community of colleagues who are eager to find better paths. I’m hoping my colleagues will ask even better questions of our data, and embrace trying new things as a result. I hope those new things are coordinated, measured, and refined as we continue to learn more about our students. I hope all of this, because one thing is certain, staring at the data is not enough.