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.

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.

Engagement, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

From Evolution to Revolution

Over the last year a group of dedicated faculty and staff, all members of our standing assessment committee, have been working to define our university outcomes. This effort is meant to help us see the big picture of the goals of WCSU. University outcomes ask us to consider the connections between majors, general education, minors, electives, co-curricular programs, etc., and their collective impact on our students. When established, they will also provide a path to determining if we are achieving them. This has been a somewhat daunting task, but the committee members have worked hard, and we are nearly there.

When we started this conversation two years ago, I supplied the team with records of all of the established learning outcomes in every major at the university. In addition, I suggested that our general education curriculum and the university’s mission, vision, and values were great places to look for clues as to how to begin. Taking that information together, the things we value as a university started to come into focus. After a few rounds of analysis, forays into drafting language that sprang from those sources, and one focused retreat, the committee emerged with a proposal that is a good reflection of who we are. This backward mapping was very effective as a process, and after incorporating the edits suggested by the broader campus community, this list will stand as an excellent start for defining our shared goals. Bravo.

University outcomes encourage us to look at how things weave together. We are often so busy focusing on our specific tasks in majors or academic support programs or athletics that we don’t look at the whole. Establishing shared goals focuses our attention on how all areas interact. They suggest a path to collaboration that is exciting. Having a standing committee with representatives from faculty, staff, and administration has been a great place to move this conversation forward. This is an important step for WCSU, one that I hope will inspire great conversations at our university.

But I must admit that as we approach the finish line (I hope), I am feeling a little restless. You see, even as that very good work has been taking place, I have been immersed in conversations about the ways that we are failing to reach all of our students. Three different groups (committees, leadership teams, program leaders) have just reached out to me about retention. Each one was trying to discern the reasons why students leave and what next steps we might take to reach them. The answers to their questions are both simple and complex; simple in that I know that the greatest predictor of losing our students is actually their high school GPA, complex in that after accounting for that predictor there are many other subtle factors that lead students out the door. We have taken important steps to address the main predictor; there is more work to do on the rest.

At the same time that those earnest and important questions emerged, I ended up in two wonderful conversations about engaging students in the first year. WCSU already as a first-year course, but these conversations led to an observation about the totality of that first-year experience. In one, we were discussing ways to connect students to our community, in another we were talking about learning experiences that first year students should have. These were exciting conversations and the ideas we explored reflect so well on my colleagues. They are feeling the gaps in the experiences our students are having and trying to innovate and respond.

But I worry, because whenever we get into these discussions about better ways to support the students at a high risk of leaving, or about creating learning experiences that might be more engaging for this generation of learners, we always get bogged down in questions of time, effort, and resources. These are important considerations, but they often derail us before we begin. It is clear we are feeling the need to change. I don’t want those good impulses to get derailed. I am just as exhausted by the juggle as my colleagues are, and I am well aware of our limited resources, so it would be easiest to just pause with the university outcomes and wait a minute. But I find myself feeling that there is no time to waste. I default to my usual perspective–let’s focus on productive changes, while we conspire to do less. Ironically, doing less will take an immense effort. I think the effort might be worth it.

This effort is a lot to ask for, I know. But the questions raised by faculty and staff and students on a daily basis, tell me that this is not a moment to tweak what we do; it is time for real change. So, just as we finish this task of establishing our shared goals, I am thinking of next steps. This time we shouldn’t be backward mapping to what we already do. Instead, we should give full reconsideration to the question of how the learning experiences we design (curricular and co-curricular) interact to engage our students. We should be thinking about how those experiences can help students seize control of their lives and empower them to create the world they want to live in. We should draw on the full range of expertise on our campus to create meaningful connections between ideas, instead of separating them by departments and divisions. We should work to undo the biases built into federal and state regulations that privilege the student who can survive five classes a semester and rebuild our programs to outsmart those rules. We should remember to consult the vast body of research on instructional design throughout. And so much more.

So, why am I restless about those university outcomes? Well, I’m not really. They are a great place to start to focus our efforts and examine our decisions in light of a common set of goals. Those goals are not contradictory to the next project I have just outlined. They will help us evolve as a university, connecting people and ideas that we have struggled to connect in the past. I hope these shared goals will foster conversations at every level of our university, so we can make good decisions about what we are investing in and the experiences we are designing to achieve them. They can propel us forward, even as they reflect the past.

But establishing these outcomes is not enough because we don’t just need to evolve, we need a full-scale revolution. No time to pause… ready, set, go.

Accountability, Change, Higher Education

The Limits of Ad Hoc Committees

In 2012, when I first came to Western Connecticut State University, one of my new colleagues asked me if I was more of a spreadsheet person or an idea person. I happily responded, ideas, and then found my life fully immersed in spreadsheets. The truth is that I am both. I have ideas every single day, but I need to ground them in data, considering the context and cost of an initiative, and planning to measure the impact. As far as I can tell one cannot lead without having some ideas and then vetting them; it is the job.

As I reflect on the work we have done over the last ten years, I see that a lot of good has come out of the back and forth between data and ideas. Our revised general education curriculum seems to have had a positive impact on our graduation rates. I can’t measure causality on this one, but I think the implementation of the First Year Navigation course as part of the gen-ed, coupled with greater transparency in our requirements must be part of the reason why those numbers have improved. I can say for sure that after it was implemented the number of requests for last minute waivers or course substitutions because students had missed a hidden rule in the requirements decreased. There is still room for improvement, but I think the change has overall been a win for student success. This work was completed through the work of our Committee on General Education, working through governance and responding to input. Not everyone was happy, but decisions were made.

Driven by enrollment data and the not so great news about declining high school graduates in New England, I have worked with colleagues to support the development of new graduate degree programs. These programs have been much more informed by regional workforce needs (nursing, addiction counseling, education, healthcare leadership) than our older paths to curriculum development. Indeed, we have had to face facts about enrollment data in some of those older degree programs and we made the decision to close a few. Whether these new programs will be enough to fill the gaps in recruitment at the undergraduate level remains to be seen, but the signs are promising, and I am monitoring outcomes. The curricular changes followed our normal governance processes, with a little extra support in terms of projected demand for new programs and a commitment to looking at our own enrollment trends for faltering programs. Not everyone was happy, but decisions were made.

Close scrutiny of our retention rates has led to the development of our new peer mentor program. After years of asking ourselves who we were losing, and in some cases, just feeling overwhelmed by the many potential factors, a look at the patterns in our retention data gave us clear direction. As the chief evaluator of our outcomes data, I instigated this conversation. Starting first with a standing university committee, I thought the path would be relatively smooth. Unfortunately, it was not, and after being rejected at that level, I moved to an ad hoc committee. The good news is some talented faculty and staff worked together to move this one forward. That bad news is it took three years to implement. There was progress, and we are measuring outcomes, but I was unsuccessful in communicating the urgency of the situation. Still, decisions were made.

As a strong believer in shared governance, I do my very best to move initiatives forward through our normal university processes. At WCSU, we have very positive governance structures in place, structures that I am immensely proud of, because they recognize the collaboration that must take place between faculty, staff, students, and administration. Most of our committees have representation from all of those constituencies on them. This encourages free discussion and the engagement of ideas from all areas. Most of the time this works very well, if somewhat ploddingly. Nevertheless, there are moments when an idea does not really fit in our normal structures and I generally choose to ask for an ad hoc committee to be appointed (sometimes by me, sometimes through Senate leadership), to explore those ideas. Unfortunately, these committees do not seem to reach the point where decisions can be made.

Over the last few years, I have relied on ad hoc committees to try to help me sort through several initiatives or questions. Of those several, only one has managed to truly move an idea forward. It has been a lesson in leadership for me. To be clear, I have utterly failed to impress upon those involved, the importance of the initiatives for the university’s future. It is likely that I was less than clear in the goals as well. I take the blame for the lack of clarity, but I am perplexed as to what to do next.

It isn’t that I expected those committees to return reports that looked exactly like what I thought they would when we started the conversation. If that were the case, it would not be an ad hoc committee exploring a question, but an implementation team. The point of the committees was to look at the starting material/question and then consider a variety of ways to address those questions. In this spirit I met with each group to outline what I thought the pertinent questions about the topic were and then opened things up for the questions and ideas. In each case, the committees asked for clarifications, which I tried to provide, and then they went to work. I stepped back and let the group’s wisdom take hold.

Unfortunately, in nearly every case, people seemed to either be unable to resolve debates within the committee, or they veered off in an unanticipated direction that completely transformed the original charge. Oh well. People did their best. Obviously I was not clear enough. That’s life.

Except some of these committees were formed to address urgent questions, questions that could have an impact on enrollment, or on campus climate, or on the general direction of the university, as we adjust to enrollment challenges and recover from a pandemic. Oh well, just doesn’t cut it. I have failed to lead.

This puts me in a quandary. You see, I don’t just say I embrace shared governance, I mean it. I know the limits of my imagination and I value the dialogue that our processes support. But I have clearly reached the limits of ad hoc committees because they are not leading to action. We need to take action. It is urgent.

I need a new path. I have to figure out how to move urgent things forward, things that have the potential to transform or bolster our campus, so that we might thrive in the face of that demographic cliff we are all staring at. Not all of our next steps will fit neatly into our defined structures so I can’t just default to the usual paths. I still value the input of the many, in all that we do, but I am worried about pace and I am worried about distractions. Decisions have to be made. It is time to regroup.