Conference Highlights Innovations in Student Success Strategies
What does it take to succeed in college? A lot more than book smarts.
When students enter the UNC System, the majority of them are doing much more than enrolling in classes. Many are venturing out on their own for the first time. They must learn how to navigate campuses that are bigger than many hometowns. Quite a few students must learn how to manage finances and set up accounts for the first time. And nearly everyone is taking a crash course in what it means to study, research, and succeed at the college level. All this is to say nothing of the challenge of plotting an academic pathway that could likely shape the course of a life.
In short, walking onto a college campus is akin to diving into the deep end of adulthood. Most students must negotiate these challenges without the day-to-day support of family or long-time friends, and some find the challenge too daunting.
On August 2, 2019, representatives from seven UNC System institutions met in Chapel Hill, NC, inspired by the mission to make this learning curve a little less sharp. At this convening, winners of the inaugural Student Success Innovation Lab (SSIL) grant competition gathered to share their potentially game-changing strategies to help more students finish their degrees in a timely fashion.
These grants won’t merely facilitate short-term solutions at the micro-level. They are designed to generate long-term gains with far-reaching impact. If these individual initiatives prove successful, they may eventually be scaled up at the home institution and, in some cases, across the UNC System.
"Affordable tuition at our UNC System institutions gives North Carolinians the opportunity to pursue higher education. The Student Success Innovation Lab reflects the hard work we are doing to ensure that students also have the help they need to seize this opportunity fully,” UNC System Interim President William Roper
Innovation at Every Level
According to National Student Clearinghouse data, System-wide graduation rates are higher than the national average for public universities. Seventy-two percent of first-time, full-time students who started at a UNC System institution in fall 2011 completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. But, only 46 percent finished within four years.
The UNC System is committed to improving those odds. Its Student Success Innovation Lab is aimed at getting more students, from more diverse backgrounds, to and through college in less time. In August 2019, SSIL announced the first cohort of grant recipients.
“Affordable tuition at our UNC System institutions gives North Carolinians the opportunity to pursue higher education. The Student Success Innovation Lab reflects the hard work we are doing to ensure that students also have the help they need to seize this opportunity fully,” said UNC System Interim President William Roper.
Generously backed through philanthropic funding, these grants will support the implementation or expansion of potentially groundbreaking student success strategies. Just as importantly, the grants will fund rigorous assessment mechanisms that will measure the impact each program has.
“Certainly, other systems have given out money to support special initiatives, but they haven’t been as attentive to back-end evaluation,” said UNC System Senior Vice President for Strategy and Policy Andrew Kelly. “What we’re doing is unique, and it will allow us, as a System, to make the case for investment in things that we know are proven to work.”
Last year, institutional implementation teams worked alongside research affiliates from within the UNC System to plan the projects and draft the full proposals. The research affiliates were chosen on the basis of their expertise and experience in program evaluation and research design. Going forward, these research affiliates will serve as the principal investigators overseeing the evaluation of the SSIL projects.
The August convening served as a lively, interactive way to kick-off the implementation phase. Five implementation teams and five research affiliates shared their plans, offered one another feedback, and gathered new ideas to take back to their home institutions.
“Certainly, other systems have given out money to support special initiatives, but they haven’t been as attentive to back-end evaluation ... What we’re doing is unique, and it will allow us, as a System, to make the case for investment in things that we know are proven to work.” Andrew Kelly
Easing the Transition
Roughly 25 percent of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University freshmen will not return for their sophomore year. Low-income students, students with low GPAs, and those living off-campus are especially prone to dropping out.
This year, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University launched the Aggie Success Academy, a summer in-residence program that gives incoming freshman a supportive primer to success in higher education. By softening students’ make-or-break introduction to university life, this innovative initiative aims to improve their odds of continuing on to sophomore status … and eventually on to graduate status.
The summer residency adopts a multi-pronged approach to ease students’ entry into college life. Everyone in the program participates in a “math boot camp.” Math is one of higher education’s most notorious stumbling blocks, and the boot camp primes incoming Aggies to succeed. Students also participate in a coding activity. By designing a tablet app, students build critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Participants also collaborate with an onsite learning specialist to discover learning and study strategies that best suit their individual needs.
Creating this sense of belonging is especially important for rural and first generation students, who in all likelihood arrive on campus with no framework for anticipating what college life is like.
In addition, these students earn core credits for general education courses in English, history, and freshman studies. By taking these courses in a more intimate setting and without the stress of a full-time course load, students stand a better chance of having their first college learning experience being a positive one.
Perhaps most importantly, the immersive experience helps integrate tentative students into the Aggie community. Creating this sense of belonging is especially important for rural and first generation students, who in all likelihood arrive on campus with no framework for anticipating what college life is like.
“For students to have this opportunity to live on campus—to start experiencing what college is like and to take courses from actual professors—you just can’t get that staying at home and working,” said UNC Greensboro’s Dr. Karla Lewis, a member the team that will be measuring the impact of the Aggie Success Academy.
Learning Adhesive: Helping Course Content Stick
Like N.C. A&T, East Carolina University received a SSIL grant to help revamp the classroom experience. Both initiatives pursue sweeping and ambitious change. ECU’s project will reimagine how classroom space and time is used—how teaching happens, where it happens, and when it happens.
ECU’s project specifically targets entry-level courses in biology, chemistry, economics, geology, math, physics, and Spanish that have high rates of students earning Ds, failures, and withdrawals (DFW rates). To ensure that more students get through these courses and stay on track toward graduation, the Learning Assistant Program will embed trained and experienced upper-level undergraduates in these classrooms to augment faculty instruction.
Students enrolled in these sections will benefit from more hands-on, one-on-one instruction and diverse teaching styles.
Students enrolled in these sections will benefit from more hands-on, one-on-one instruction and diverse teaching styles. The personalized attention will help clarify and reinforce course content so that it sticks. The positive impact of this program will ripple outward, as well.
The work will encourage the learning assistants to continue their own intellectual pursuits in the subject matter. Moreover, the act of teaching and explaining requires more complex mastery of content that verges on the graduate level. The learning assistants will take a course to help them develop effective teaching strategies, and they will participate in weekly meetings with faculty. This intensive effort will help the assistants succeed in their own upper-level coursework and potentially inspire them to become teachers in the discipline.
Students won’t be the only ones who learn. Faculty members who participate in the Learning Assistant Program will also experiment with innovative teaching strategies. To fully utilize their assistants, faculty members will have to modify their courses to include additional engaged learning activities, problem-based learning, or a “flipped” approach to delivering course content. Thus, the program provides a built-in opportunity for faculty to rethink how they teach all of their classes, not just those sections featuring a learning assistant.
The Learning Assistant Program has already transformed biology, chemistry, and physics classrooms into highly engaged, active learning environments. Now, with the SSIL grant in hand, ECU will be able to test its effectiveness more broadly.
From Pro Forma to Intervention
The presentations at the SSIL convening underscored how student support mechanisms are just as critical to student success as teaching itself: three implementation teams explained their goal to make advising more effective.
Not long ago, advising sessions were focused on expedience. Students and faculty alike were focused largely on making sure prerequisites were met and that students had planned a workable progression toward degree completion.
Today, the UNC System recognizes that advisors should take a much more proactive role: helping students set academic and course goals; helping at risk students recover from a disruptive academic performance; and even helping ensure that personal crises don’t lead to drop outs.
The ideas shared at the August meeting illustrated how much things have changed. Today, the UNC System recognizes that advisors should take a much more proactive role: helping students set academic and course goals; helping at risk students recover from a disruptive academic performance; and even helping ensure that personal crises don’t lead to drop outs.
Many students find themselves struggling to make their way through their major’s gateway courses. Sometimes these difficulties are an indication that the major isn’t a good fit with students’ interests and skills. Nevertheless, without resources to help to discover what other, more achievable options might be available, students waste time and finances retaking the same classes in a vain attempt to advance in their degree. This vicious cycle can be particularly devastating on low-income students, who could might ‘stop out’ because they see debt piling up and time frittering away with little hope of reward in the future.
The UNC Charlotte implementation team explained how its Funds to Finish Index and Intervention program will help these students align academic goals with financial resources in order to boost timely graduation. This approach will simultaneously tackle the dual challenges most students face every semester: academic and financial planning.
“At most universities, the supports for students on these twin challenges are not well integrated,” explained Dr. Elise Demeter, UNC Charlotte’s senior assessment research analyst. “As a result, students often make academic decisions without fully understanding the financial implications. That, in turn, leads to scenarios in which students stop-out or graduate with excess credits and debt.”
Funds to Finish will implement an algorithmic index based on student academic performance and financial aid usage to identify early-career undergraduates on paths to graduation that may exceed four years or that may exhaust financial aid options. Then, trained advisors will be able to stage interventions to help redirect at-risk students. In addition to one-on-one advising, intervention strategies will also include interactive tools that help students create, monitor, and recalibrate degree plans so that academic aspirations fall in line with financial capacity. Informational modules will teach financial literacy, helping students learn to interpret financial aid awards and calculate loan repayment.
If Funds to Finish proves to be effective, it will be indispensable in UNC Charlotte’s push to achieve its Strategic Plan goal to increase low-income completions by 29.8%.
Making Measurable Progress
UNC Greensboro is also considering how to make more strategic advising interventions. UNCG’s own data indicate that the students who are most at risk of delaying their time to graduation are those who pursue majors they are not eligible to declare and those who frequently repeat or withdraw from courses. The university’s implementation team will test whether financial aid incentives and strategic advising are enough to “disrupt the churn” by helping students be more informed and realistic as they chart out their academic aspirations.
At UNCG, Major Transition Advisors will scrutinize sophomores and first-semester juniors who have started to settle into a major. Advisors will try to identify the high-need students who are not on track to graduate in eight semesters.
When students are at risk of stumbling or running out of financing before degree completion, these advisors will determine their academic strengths, study their course registration history, and discuss career aspirations. Taking all this information into account, the advisors will help each student find an alternative major that may be a better fit and, thereby, may enable timely degree completion.
Working together, advisors and students will plot strategies to overcome administrative and academic hurdles standing in the way of graduation.
Advisors will also help students at academic risk to formulate an action plan to take advantage of resources. Working together, advisors and students will plot strategies to overcome administrative and academic hurdles standing in the way of graduation.
By staging advising interventions during the sophomore and junior years, UNCG will reroute students before they venture too far down an ill-conceived and unrealistic academic path.
“What we are trying to do is help students explore and figure out what they want to do, but at a lower cost. Students get a chance to figure out what they really like and then declare that path,” said Dr. Andrew Hamilton, associate vice provost for Student Success and dean of Undergraduate Success at UNCG. “We want to make sure they have a well-informed financial plan, so their aid lasts until degree completion with no surprises. We also want to make sure they get all the aid for which they are eligible with the smallest amount of unsubsidized loan dollars.”
By “disrupting the churn” that students face when they sift through countless degree options, UNCG will ensure that students are more knowledgeable and financially prepared as they head toward the future. This work will get students closer to the ultimate goal: graduating on time.
High Tech Solutions and Deep Connections
UNC Asheville will tackle its advising challenges using high tech solutions.
By the university’s own calculation, the average UNC Asheville student attempts 14.7 hours per semester and earns 13.6. This means that, on average, a student at the university will take four and a half years to graduate. If there’s a stumble in the classroom, graduation gets delayed even further.
UNC Asheville’s strategic plan specifically sets a goal of enrolling a more diverse student body. But low-income, first-generation, and rural students can face a higher risk of falling behind because of a poor performance in a class, a higher risk of delayed graduation, and, ultimately, a higher risk of leaving the university when they are “almost home.”
With a limited number of full-time advisors on staff, outreach to struggling students is sometimes limited to an email encouraging them to connect with campus resources. Not surprisingly, such remote outreach efforts fail to motivate the students who need help the most.
UNC Asheville will use the SSIL grant to make two critical investments in advising.
1First, the university will invest in Civitas Learning’s College Scheduler course-scheduling optimization platform. Students tend to use a back-of-the-envelope approach as they design their course schedules: they choose a single course and build a schedule around it, ignoring dozens of other possible arrangements and efficiencies. With College Scheduler, students choose four to six preferred courses and set parameters and filters that block off unavoidable commitments like athletic practices, jobs, or child-care needs. Then, College Scheduler generates dozens of schedules that meet their needs and maximize registered credit hours.
2Secondly, the university will add a full time academic case manager who will closely monitor students’ performance, reaching out and meeting regularly throughout the semester with those students most likely to drop out or face suspension.
Case managers meet repeatedly with students over the course of a semester. Through the process, they are able to forge strong connections with students and to understand the factors underlying their struggles.
Case managers meet repeatedly with students over the course of a semester. Through the process, they are able to forge strong connections with students and to understand the factors underlying their struggles. This intensive work leaves case managers well-equipped to suggest targeted and strategic solutions.
“An academic advisor meets with students on demand. With these walk-in appointments, what you get is a passive interaction in the sense that the student initiates the contact to solve an immediate problem. These conversations are typically about which classes they take, or, perhaps they might talk about major exploration,” said Dr. Brad Petitfils, UNC Asheville’s senior director of advising and academic success. “This case manager model is much more like intrusive advising, where the interaction is flipped. The case manager calls the student and reaches out more regularly than would an academic advisor.”
Petitfils explained to the other conference attendees how this model of “intrusive advising” has the potential to address the wide variety of challenges that can impede student success.
“This is more about holistic wellness. It is not so much, ‘What is your intended major? What courses are you taking?’ The case manager approach is more about asking, ‘Why is that class giving you a challenge? Is this the right path for you? Here is a study path that can be helpful. Can you afford to buy that textbook? Are you having trouble accessing that material? Here are other resources on campus that can help’.”
"This convening reminds us how important and rewarding it is for us to have connection." Dr. Kimberly van Noort
A System-wide Push Gives a Boost to Individual Effort
What does it take to succeed in college? A lot more than individual effort. The 2019 Student Success Innovation Lab convening made this clear.
Higher Expectations: The Strategic Plan for the University of North Carolina prioritizes improving five-year graduation rates and minimizing achievement gaps among different student populations, including low-income and minority students: “Addressing these inequities will go a long way in fulfilling our promise of equal opportunity, while also bolstering overall student success and helping drive our state forward.”
The Student Success Innovation Lab exemplifies this ongoing work. By supporting and incentivizing each institution to devise and evaluate new strategies, it will have a measurable long-term impact: more students, from all 100 counties and from all walks of life, will leave the UNC System with a diploma in hand and a brighter future in the bag.
“This convening reminds us how important and rewarding it is for us to have connection,” said UNC System Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Kimberly van Noort during her opening remarks. “These grants give us an incredible opportunity see the work going on throughout the System, and we are here to support you.”
Dr. van Noort’s comments underscored how student success isn’t an individual effort. It is a statewide effort … and a Systemwide commitment.