Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
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Student-centricity is a defining feature of the postsecondary institution of the future, but for many college and university leaders the concept hasn’t progressed beyond a buzzword. At Indian River State College, however, student-centricity—the intentional design of processes and programming around student needs—has been a guiding mantra since the turn of the millennium, and they were rewarded for their efforts in 2019 by being named an Aspen Prize winner. In this interview, Ed Massey and Christina Hart reflect on the importance of student-centricity to IRSC’s structural foundation, and share their insights on what it takes to execute on this vision.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do you define student centricity and how did you establish it within your institution?
Ed Massey (EM): You have to look at student-centricity from an institutional basis, and your vision has to be holistic across the culture of your institution. What’s needed is the flexibility to use different types of methodologies in the learning process without any fear. We need to incentivize folks to research and innovate in a risk-free environment. That’s the only way to develop techniques that are effective for today’s students.
For example, the lecture approach isn’t as effective in the 21st century. Everything from discussion groups to projects within the classes needs a structure that ensures students are learning both the theory and the application of information.
You have to have a culture in your college centered around the students, and student learning needs to be the top priority on campus. This was the mantra we established in 2002. We did a lot of research and a lot of work on the learning environment to encourage students to explore and grow. We established instructional methods that challenge the students to have stretch goals and never give up on those goals. Students are championed to reach high performance standards, resulting in the retention and completion of the student.
Christina Hart (CH): That is the heart and soul of our college, and decision-making at our college is conducted through the lens of asking, “What would be best for the student?” This impacts our support mechanisms, our resources, our infrastructure, and even our facilities.
To be student-centric means that the student lens has to be the guide in decision-making and in how to support our central focus, which is student learning.
Evo: Why is the notion of student centricity so uniquely or particularly important for community and technical colleges?
EM: Since student-centricity is our key focus, we have open door admissions and a student body that reflects the ethnicity and gender makeup of our community. That kind of approach is very important in terms of getting to the real definition of equity, which is taking a student from where they are individually to help them meet and accomplish their individual goals. We’re not treating everybody the same way. We’re providing the resources and the help each student needs —not only academically but with other challenges that they face outside the classroom—to support their success.
We have to be more aware of the needs of our students. There are many ways to go about finding that information, like conducting surveys on entering students, and tracking student progress with the use of technology that can help us identify barriers student’s encounter. Some barriers may be academic or non-academic, both of which we investigate to provide the resources they need. When students exit college, we survey them again so that we can gather the experience information and evaluate to see where we can adjust and improve our processes.
CH: There are a number of providers of postsecondary education across the United States, but community and technical colleges are the place that a lot of low-income and vulnerable students have the most access. These institutions are typically more affordable, so being student-focused is essential because they’re coming in with other needs. That’s critical, and that’s why we’re teaching institutions vs. research institutions. We’re really preparing our learners for the job market, regardless of whether they plan to transfer first or go directly to work. We can turn on a dime at community colleges. We’re very nimble.
Evo: What are some of the infrastructural changes that you and your colleagues at Indian River put into place to deliver this more student-centric environment?
EM: We totally re-engineered our onboarding process. For students coming to our College, we have assigned advisors for all of our students who stay with them throughout their time here. We changed the old style what was commonly referred to as cafeteria style and turned that into a guided pathway style of the selection of courses that lead to a credential. We ensure students are thinking about what they’re trying to accomplish right from the start when they enroll and do comprehensive career investigation based on their interest areas. From there we place students into meta-majors, to help them get a feel for the kinds of jobs they could transition into, and how those jobs evolve into careers.
We work with our educators and our faculty to build the guided pathways so that the students still have options in terms of the general ed courses they may take to fulfill a math, English or history requirement. It provides them a roadmap towards what they want to do in the future. This approach has been really well-received, and the students can finish their college career in a timely manner at an affordable cost.
CH: Ensuring our employees are aware and educated about who our students are is also an important change for us. We’re doing a lot of training with students that are underserved, such as the Ruby Payne Bridges Out of Poverty training. We’re going to train our faculty about under-resourced college students to help them better understand student needs in context.
Our structural foundation is based on how we can better help our students, and that runs deep. Every employee, including those who mow the lawn, our security guards, along with our faculty and staff understand our foundation and sole priority – which is student success.
EM: This has been an effective approach for us over the years. We have increased retention, completion, job placement, and improved the salaries of our students. It took that constant improvement, as continuous improvement is core to our beliefs. It’s our passion, and it drives our focus on student success. We’re very careful when we hire people because we want to bring the right people on board who believe in our culture and in the goals that we have set.
CH: The focus on student success also impacts our processes. In enrollment and student services, for example, we’re analyzing our processes to assess if we are putting up barriers unintentionally in the registration and retention areas. We’re also looking openly and honestly at some of our processes and procedures that students have to go through, to understand how we might be holding them up or making it less comfortable.
Evo: Have you noticed any aspects of the registration and enrollment process that could be hindering students?
CH: We’ve made a lot of changes. That’s the thing about us being nimble. If we identify issues—either through data or student feedback through focus groups—we’ll look for ways to make changes. There’s always room to make things better for our students. While some processes are in place to adhere to regulatory requirements, there are processes we can adjust to make things easier and quicker for students. We absolutely aren’t tied to the status quo for its own sake.
EM: It has to be intentional. We learned a long time ago that we’re called upon to do many things for our community. You can get caught up in so many different things, so you have to take time out to evaluate and make sure you’re keeping your focus on student success.
Students today are looking to get things done with three clicks. So we look at each step to see what we can eliminate. What we find is that many steps are in there because they’ve just always been there. You have to intentionally try to create efficiency and remove some of the unnecessary steps. You have to change the old habits to new habits, ensuring you’re still getting the job done in a quality way. We spend a lot of time doing that.
Evo: What advice would you share with other college leaders who are looking to establish a student-centric philosophy or culture at their own campuses, on their own institutions?
EM: It must be an intentional effort to look at the processes within the institution that make the biggest difference in the performance of your students.
One approach we take is in our use of work groups; not committees, because committees tend to stay in existence forever without any real outcome. Our work groups are topic-specific and time-limited. My advice is to take the time to prioritize those things that you want to impact that will make the biggest difference in enrollment, in retention, in completion, in placement of students, and start building continuous conversations around these areas
Maintain cross-campus conversations and collaborations on each of these topics. It becomes a part of everyday conversation. Track it with data so that people can see the progress, and they will get very excited and know that they can make a difference in students’ lives in a greater way than they’re currently doing.
All of our institutions have potential that we are leaving on the table—and we can all find ways to bring that out. There’s so much talent in colleges like ours. Develop mechanisms to harvest that talent and be willing to listen to your people because they have good ideas. Be willing to put resources toward those ideas to carry them out. That will engage your employees and they will know their opinions are being listened to, which will energize them in a way you’ve never experienced before.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students