Current Projects

Funded by the ECMC Foundation, the John M. Belk Endowment, Arnold Ventures and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Student Success Innovation Lab helps UNC System institutions develop and test new strategies for promoting student success. The grants will support innovative practices in three areas: teaching and learning, student services, and financial aid. The grants require each institution to partner with a third-party evaluator to measure and evaluate the impact of these strategies. Individual initiatives that prove successful can be scaled up at the home institution and, in some cases, expanded across the UNC System.

  • North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University: The Aggie Success Academy will provide an immersive summer residence program that will integrate incoming first year students into the university community and prepare them for success at the college level.
  • East Carolina University: ECU will expand an existing Learning Assistant model to include additional gatekeeper courses in subject areas with high rates of D’s, fails, and withdraws (economics, foreign language, and math). The learning assistants are trained, near-peer undergraduate student instructors, who will co-teach courses with instructors while concurrently enrolled in a course on curriculum and pedagogy.
  • UNC Asheville: UNC Asheville will implement two student advising initiatives: a scheduling optimization tool and a full-time case manager, specifically to support students most likely to struggle academically.
  • UNC Charlotte: UNCC’s Funds to Finish program will use proactive advising to help students align academic goals with financial resources. Using an algorithmic index and other tools, UNCC’s advisors will be able to intervene when students struggle in gateway courses to help them re-conceptualize their academic pathways.
  • UNC Greensboro: UNCG’s Major Transition Advisors will proactively help those students who lose momentum to identify an alternative major, which may be a better fit and which may enable timely degree completion.
  • Fayetteville State University, UNC Pembroke, Western Carolina University, and Winston-Salem State University: Each institution, in this multi-site pilot, will provide completion grants to students who are close to graduation, but have unmet financial need, and have exhausted all other sources of financial aid. Priority will be given to rural and low-income students.

IMPLEMENTATION AND EVALUATION PROJECTS

The Student Success Innovation Lab makes competitive grants to UNC System institutions to implement and evaluate initiatives that are designed to improve student success. A hallmark of the SSIL is a commitment to rigorous, third-party evaluation that can produce high-quality evidence of the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of particular student success interventions. The main goal of SSIL grants is to enable UNC institutions to implement new or scale existing student success initiatives and evaluate the results. These grants are designed to inform institutional and System-level efforts to improve student success rates so as to achieve the goals outlined in the UNC System Strategic Plan. Projects commenced in Summer 2019 and will end December 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a constantly evolving set of challenges for the UNC System’s students, faculty, staff, and leaders. These abrupt and unprecedented changes obviously have significant implications for our Student Success Innovation Lab projects. Our university partners are acutely aware of the challenges posed by the closure of campus housing and dining mid-semester, as well as the shift to remote learning. Above all else, they must put the students’ needs and well-being first. To get a grasp of what this all means, we reached out to the SSIL project teams for more information and have included 2020 updates for each project below.

East Carolina University: Evaluation of the Effectiveness and Impact of Learning Assistants

Initiative Team Lead: Derek Maher, East Carolina University

Research Affiliates: Carl Westine, University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Nianbo Dong, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This project will scale an existing ECU Learning Assistant model to include additional Learning Assistants in key gatekeeper courses with high DFW rates (economics, foreign language, and math). The Learning Assistants are trained, near-peer undergraduate student instructors who co-teach courses with instructors while concurrently enrolled in a curriculum/pedagogy course.

The project team anticipates the transition to online classes will prove less of a challenge than the institutional change to final grade awards. Faculty have devised several solutions to maintain Learning Assistant engagement through the remainder of the semester, including weekly preparatory meetings with instructors, virtual office hours, and moderated online discussions. In contrast, the adoption of a Pass-Fail grading option, for Spring 2020 courses, will affect GPA calculation and, subsequently, student selection for the next cohort. The project team will lose a level of granularity if they cannot identify struggling students based on letter grades, in critical courses.

2020 Update: Faculty devised several solutions to maintain Learning Assistant engagement through the remainder of the spring 2020 semester, including weekly preparatory meetings with instructors, virtual office hours, and moderated online discussions. ECU’s adoption of a pass/fail grading option for spring 2020 courses will affect GPA calculation and other project outcome variables.

North Carolina A&T University: Aggie Success Academy

Initiative Team Lead: Regina Williams-Davis, North Carolina A.&T. State University

Research Affiliate: Julie Edmunds, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

The Aggie Success Academy allows students who have one or more of the risk factors that influence retention to enroll in general education courses (English, history and freshman studies) in the summer before their first fall. Students will have the support of the university’s tutoring, advising, financial literacy and academic skills programs. 

There is a high level of uncertainty around this project as it is a summer, in-residence program. The project team discussed implementation of a virtual model but identified several critical defects. First, the project team lacks the staffing capacity to lead a program redesign, while executing current emergency procedures. Second, the team anticipated severe complications in the coding course administration, which required significant in-person support. Third, the data would show significant measurement differences between the Summer 2019 and 2020 cohorts. The team requires an institutional decision about summer housing availability before they can move forward.

2020 Update: NCAT has decided to delay the implementation of the Aggie Success Academy to Summer 2021. The project team discussed implementation of a virtual model for this summer, but identified several critical defects. First, a virtual experience would be an entirely different intervention than they had planned and would require substantial additional design work, in the midst of responding to the very substantial needs of current students. Second, they would not be able to pool their evaluation data across the two summers because data would apply to two different interventions. Finally, offering the entire experience online without any in-person support would likely lead to potentially negative outcomes.

UNC Asheville: Working Smarter and Harder

Initiative Team Lead: Brad Petitfils, University of North Carolina at Asheville

Research Affiliate: Angela Dills, Western Carolina University

The grant will fund two student advising initiatives: a scheduling optimization tool and a full-time case manager to specifically support students most likely to struggle academically. Students with academic warning status and students who receive academic alerts in the first eight weeks of class will be eligible to participate.

Student demand for virtual meetings with the case manager has been high since the shift to remote learning. Students have expressed some anxiety about the online course format. The disruption has the potential to affect the current semester’s attempted and earned credits. UNCA begins Fall 2020 advising this week and the project lead expects to see a shift in the way students use College Scheduler (the scheduling optimization tool) as students may be less likely to register for a normal course load until the current situation stabilizes.

2020 Update: Student demand for virtual meetings with the case manager has been high since the shift to remote learning, and some students have expressed some anxiety about the online course format. UNCA has begun fall 2020 advising and they expect to see a shift in the way students use College Scheduler (the scheduling optimization tool) as students may be less likely to register for a normal course load until the current situation stabilizes. Early results from fall 2019 are promising (positive effects on GPA and credit accumulation), so UNCA hopes to be able to proceed with the intervention in fall 2020.

UNC Charlotte: Funds to Finish

Initiative Team Lead: John Smails, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Research Affiliate: Dora Gicheva, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

UNCC is developing a “Funds to Finish” index that assesses whether a student’s academic plan is aligned with their financial resources. Students identified as “at-risk” through the index will receive intensive advising and access to financial aid counseling. Randomly selected students who complete financial aid counseling will receive $250.

The project team’s plan for recruitment for Fall 2020 was still under development at the time the crisis emerged. They were considering different recruitment pools, one voluntary with incentive modeled on Spring 2020, and the second tied to satisfactory academic progress (SAP) appeals. However, in both cases the possible change to a pass/fail grading option for Spring 2020 may significantly change the composition and size of the recruitment pools. The project team expressed concern that the recruitment pool profile would not emerge until late June and may not allow sufficient time for a fall implementation.

2020 Update: The project team’s plan for recruitment for fall 2020 was still under development at the time the crisis emerged. They were considering different recruitment pools, including one tied to satisfactory academic progress (SAP) appeals. However, the pass/fail grading option for spring 2020 may significantly change the composition and size of the recruitment pool for the fall semester. 

UNC Greensboro: Disrupting the Churn

Initiative Team Lead: Samantha Raynor, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Research Affiliate: Steve Hemelt, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Students in this project will receive support from a Major Transition Advisor to identify alternative academic majors that may be a better fit based on academic strengths, career aspirations, and timely degree completion. Randomly selected students will receive a $500-$1,000 grant to support graduation in exchange for participating in the year-long transition and advising coaching.

The Fall 2020 implementation hinges largely on advising partnerships. Recently, the team received support from associate deans to continue the intervention. They must now ascertain whether the advising center has the staffing capacity to support the effort. Once the latter has occurred, the team can determine whether the project timeline will require an adjustment. On the evaluation front, the project team received IRB approval and launched the data collection process, in late February.

2020 Update: The fall 2020 implementation hinges largely on advising capacity. If the project team cannot get the necessary staff (the System has implemented a hiring freeze in response to the pandemic), the project timeline will require an adjustment. The team is also considering how the spring 2020 pass/fail option will affect the eligibility pool if letter grades for critical major courses are unavailable for some students.

Completion Grant Pilot: Fayetteville State University, UNC Pembroke, Western Carolina University, Winston-Salem State University

Evaluator: Insight Policy Research

Implementation Support: Tina McEntire, UNC-Charlotte

The Completion Grant Pilot will function as a multi-site study of a single intervention. Each institution will provide completion grants ($1500 or less) to Pell- eligible North Carolina students who are within one calendar year of graduation, but have an unpaid university balance and have exhausted all other sources of financial aid. Rural and low-income students will receive priority. In addition to a rigorous third-party evaluation, the institutions will also receive technical assistance and guidance from a mentor who has experience implementing a completion grant initiative.

2020 Update: All four institutions awarded their Spring 2020 completion grants in January, so right now they are encouraging students to complete their two future-building activities. Now that the students are off campus, there are only two activities available to students (financial literacy and resume review). Institutions are extending the deadline for activity completion and conducting soft touch outreach, only emailing students 1-2 times over the rest of the semester.