Conferences Highlight UNC System Efforts to Enhance Retention and Graduation Rates
“The year 2030 is basically tomorrow,” cautioned Sarah Ancel, founder and CEO of Student-Ready Strategies, during her keynote remarks for the UNC System’s North Carolina Adult Promise Symposium on February 13.
That’s the year by which North Carolina needs to have 2 million residents with a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential, according to myFutureNC’s attainment goal. The UNC System is a partner in this ambitious undertaking. Over the course of three consecutive days, from February 11 to the 13th, the UNC System hosted three different conferences, all focused on exploring innovative ways to serve students more efficiently and more effectively … all reflecting the UNC System’s commitment to supporting the myFutureNC attainment goal.
The latest data measuring the University’s progress toward its 2022 Strategic Plan goals reveal that better than 71 percent of System students earn their degrees within five years. That statistic exceeds the University’s long-term goal, and it far outpaces the national average. More students are graduating from the UNC System within five years than at any time in state history.
In fact, the UNC System is on pace or ahead of schedule to meet 10 of the 12 benchmark goals established in the Strategic Plan.
But the flurry of conferences, hosted in Chapel Hill, NC, underscored the UNC System’s comprehensive approach to getting those numbers up even higher. On the surface, the Behavioral Health Convening, the Student Success Conference, and North Carolina’s Adult Promise Symposium covered different terrain. But each in its own way offered a forum for representatives from UNC System institutions to share strategies for creating the support structures students need to translate college ambition into academic success.
“Our universities are doing important work throughout the year to help North Carolinians, from all walks of life, graduate on time and with less debt,” explained UNC System Interim President William Roper. “These conferences enhance the impact of that work by drawing on the strategic advantages we enjoy as a system. By coming together and collaborating with one another, our faculty and staff are able to share ideas and research that might otherwise remain isolated at an individual institution. These are intensive efforts, but the exponential return on investment will be vital to North Carolina’s economic future.”
Building A Supportive Learning Environment
Some might not immediately think of behavioral health as a student success issue. But virtually every student (and every faculty member, for that matter) will face anxieties associated with academic life, not to mention the emotional and psychological challenges that crop up in their personal lives.
“These challenges can disrupt studies. Without support mechanisms, students can see their grades slip over the course of a semester. If students feel these hurdles are insurmountable, they may drop out of school, without the earning power of a degree that can help pay for the student debt they have accumulated,” explained UNC System Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer Kimberly van Noort.
The annual Behavioral Health Convening made it clear that student success isn’t just about good teaching and giving students access to the latest learning technologies. Far more students succeed in their studies if they work and live in a healthy learning environment.
Dr. Benjamin Locke, senior director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Penn State University and the executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, delivered this year’s opening keynote address. His remarks kicked off the conference with a blunt rebuttal to popular misconceptions about student mental health: this generation of students isn’t experiencing a mysterious epidemic of severe mental health crises. Rather, the issue of mental health care has been destigmatized, so more students feel comfortable seeking out support, and this can overwhelm health care systems with limited resources.
“We are experiencing a crisis of treatment capacity, not a crisis in student mental health,” Locke explained.
These remarks set the tone for the day’s series of breakout sessions, in which North Carolina’s educators explored the best practices and promising innovations that are helping their home institutions make the most out of their resources.
Topics covered ranged from serving iGen students and students with eating disorders to addiction recovery resources and the accommodation of support animals in the learning environment.
Midway through the day, Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, founding director of McLean Hospital’s College Mental Health Program, delivered a second keynote on examining race and identity across the college mental health eco-system through the lens of Dr. Pam Hays’ influential “ADDRESSING” identities framework.
For the first time, this year’s conference was a collaborative effort, bringing together talent and expertise from across both the UNC System and North Carolina Community Colleges. More than 250 attendees and presenters from across the state came out in force on a rain-soaked day to participate.
“The energy going into and coming out of the conference was simply fantastic,” said UNC System Vice President for Student Affairs Bethany Meighan. “This is a real indication of our state’s commitment to building safe and supportive learning environments for students at every level of North Carolina’s higher education landscape.”
On the Heels of Success Comes … More Success
The 2020 Student Success Conference launched, not with a lengthy keynote address, but with a series of five short, provocative presentations. Bundled together, these Ted Talk-inspired reflections offered a snapshot of how UNC System institutions are tackling student success on many fronts.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s Dean of Instructional Innovation Kelly Hogan and Teaching Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Viji Sathy discussed the importance of structuring class discussions and course designs to be inclusive. Roderick Heath, North Carolina Central University’s director of the Men’s Achievement Center and African American Male Initiative, shared how developing a support community structured around concepts drawn from sports—coaching and team bonds—can encourage retention by helping male students of color feel motivated and at ease.
UNC Charlotte’s Associate Provost for Enrollment Management Tina McEntire explained a university micro-grant program designed to help near-completion students overcome short-term financial setbacks that might otherwise force them to withdraw from their courses. Winston-Salem State University’s Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Anthony Graham discussed a “theory of action” that can help institutions make structural changes necessary to serve culturally and linguistically diverse students: “Get out of your agenda and get into your students’ agenda,” he advised.
UNC Greensboro’s Assistant Vice Provost for Student Success Initiatives Samantha Raynor brought the plenary series to a close with a summative presentation on the importance of student success. A college education is an opportunity for economic mobility, but “access is opportunity only half-fulfilled,” she mused.
With these words, Raynor got to the driving motivation behind the Student Success Conference and its parent initiative, the Student Success Innovation Lab. The UNC System has worked hard to attract rural, economically disadvantaged, and first-generation students, but its efforts don’t stop there. Constituent institutions are also evaluating and rethinking curriculum design, teaching strategies, policies, support systems, and financial aid options in an effort to retain these students and help them succeed in the classroom.
The annual conference provided a forum for institutions to share and learn about unique and pioneering student success strategies that are making a difference. During breakout sessions and in poster presentations, more than 200 faculty, staff, and administrators from across the System discussed the approaches that were working at their home institution.
Topics explored everything from textbook affordability to data-informed approaches to student success; from faculty engagement in redesigning general education requirements to the System-wide effort to redesign math curricula so that general education requirements align with student degree and career goals.
In addition, select vendors, who also served as conference sponsors, were on site to demonstrate technology designed to help implement and enhance student success efforts.
“One of the reasons why our graduation rates have improved steadily for several years running is because our institutions are testing creative new ideas that address the full range of issues that can impact student success,” explained UNC System Senior Vice President for Strategy and Policy Andrew Kelly. “Our institutions are doing far-reaching, innovative work to simplify and align financial aid, using proactive advising to help students before they stop out, redesigning curricula to be more relevant and courses to be more engaging, and so on. This conference represents the next step in the process: sharing lessons learned on a particular campus across the System such that successful ideas can be taken to greater scale across the System.”
The Adults in the Room
A singular motivation drives the myFutureNC attainment goal: in a rapidly changing global economy, North Carolina will need a talented workforce if it wants to attract and retain business and industry.
Studies indicate that, already, most jobs in North Carolina require a postsecondary degree or credential, and yet fewer than half of North Carolinians aged 25-44 have completed a postsecondary program.
Employers are already experiencing a talent shortage, and this problem will be compounded when another projected demographic shift begins to impact the state: the size of high school graduating classes is predicted to start shrinking by 2026. Fewer traditional students will be eligible to attend a college or university at the same time North Carolina will need to generate more postsecondary degree holders.
The NC Adult Promise Symposium was organized precisely to address this conundrum; reaching the myFutureNC attainment goal will be impossible without focusing on serving non-traditional students in a meaningful, intentional way.
As myFutureNC President and CEO Cecilia Holden pointed out in her introductory remarks at the NC Adult Promise Symposium, there’s no shortage of adults who want to return to school. In a recent survey, 39 percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with their level of education. The challenge, Holden explained, is helping those students find pathways into a college or university and providing the tools they need for success.
Already the UNC System and the North Carolina Community College System are working closely together to improve collaboration, streamline transfer processes, and minimize hurdles that have tripped up so many students along their pathways to success. Shared funding and programmatic opportunities have provided increased opportunities to collaborate, including being named one of the Lumina Foundation’s Adult Promise states in recognition of North Carolina’s efforts to support non-traditional, adult students. The conference served as a formal opportunity to amplify and extend this collaborative effort.
In her keynote address, Sarah Ancel challenged audience members to dispense with the common wisdom that it’s the student’s job to adapt to the university. Working professionals won’t find much encouragement to return to school if they can’t get access to support offices that close at 5 p.m. every workday. Parents won’t find incentive to take classes if there’s no flexibility built into course scheduling. Adults who have been out of education for a long time will feel intimidated if there are no onboarding mechanisms specifically designed to guide older students through labyrinthine processes inherent in going to school.
“Colleges should be student ready, not the other way around,” Ancel observed.
This is a lofty challenge that can require institutions to substantively reimagine their fundamental operational procedures. Accordingly, the NC Adult Promise Symposium was conceived as a forum for college and university administrators to gather and brainstorm with philanthropic, business, and government leaders.
“We intentionally focused on senior-level administrators from the UNC System and North Carolina Community Colleges as we planned this event,” explained UNC System Director of Strategic Initiatives Eric Fotheringham. “We wanted the dialogue to revolve around high-level, systemic changes that need to take place if North Carolina’s higher education systems are to do even more to serve aspiring adult and non-traditional learners.”
Whereas most of the presenters at the Behavioral Health Convening and the Student Success Conference were faculty and staff from constituent institutions, NC Adult Promise featured state and national thought leaders in higher education, including Dr. Denise Pearson, vice president, Academic Affairs and Equity Initiatives for State Higher Education Executive Officers Association; Scott Jenkins, strategy director for Lumina Foundation; Dr. Marie Cini, president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning; and Hadass Sheffer, founder and president of The Graduate! Network.
Rather than focusing on boots-on-the-ground work taking place at the institution level, these discussions focused on national and statewide perspectives on the importance of and strategies for serving adult learners.
Leveraging the System
Over the course of three days, hundreds of attendees from all across the state ventured to Chapel Hill for these conferences. Those numbers alone suggest significant engagement with the multitude of issues that impact student success.
Just as critically, those numbers indicate the potential for best practices, information, and effective innovation to spread rapidly across the state as the conference participants carry what they’ve learned back to their home institutions.