Leveraging Technology and Stepping Away from the Status Quo: A Roadmap for Change
For colleges and universities today, maintaining the status quo is no longer enough. This is true almost across the institution—the expectations of today’s students and the demands of key external stakeholders require innovation and transformation, especially when it comes to improving retention and completion. In this interview, Andy Alt and John Fischer reflect on some of the reasons why transformation became critical at BGSU and share some insights into how they have changed—and how they will continue to evolve—to ensure the best possible outcomes for learners.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did you and your colleagues at BGSU begin to focus on improving retention and completion rates?
John Fischer/Andy Alt (JF/AA): Many things happening at the same time pushed us to reenergize our university focus on improving retention and completion rates.
First, continued efforts in a number of program areas on campus had pointed out struggles to improve completion and student persistence. We wanted to push the institution’s mindset and not let the current numbers be assumed to be the best we could do. Second, a change in university leadership raised the focus on student persistence and retention. Finally, the change in state support budgetary policy refocused even more strongly a need to move students to completion.
Ultimately, the refocused energy in this area has caused us to revisit our work, reflect on where we are helping students to meet their academic and career goals, and ultimately struggle with societal need for a population of adults with the added skills and knowledge that comes with a college degree.
Evo: What did you identify as the most significant roadblocks standing in the way of persistence and graduation?
JF/AA: Beyond some of the more typical factors influencing persistence—financial means and academic preparedness—we found that some of the barriers our students were facing were things within our control. This presented us with a great opportunity to ensure that, as an institution, we were providing the right conditions for students to be successful.
We identified a few specific barriers/opportunities, including:
- Enhance the depth and quality of our opening weekend/first-year transition work
- Increase the quality and percentage of involvement of students in our various First-Year Experiences (First-Year Seminar; First Courses in the Major; Residential and Curricular Learning Communities; Linked Courses)
- Carefully review mathematics/stats placement and first-year courses
- Examine our major-change process and better assist inter-college transfers to new academic programs
- Increase our use of data for deliberation and decision making
- Consistent advising practices across colleges
- Policies and business practices that had not been reviewed in some time
- Establish better mechanisms for identifying and intervening with students in need, both proactively through predictive/directive analytics, as well as through faculty feedback (early alert, mid-term grades, etc)
Evo: How has improving access to—and collection and analysis of—data helping to support student success?
JF/AA: We worked to move on a few fronts simultaneously.
Based on a taskforce that engaged in a year or more of study and proposal development, our advising program was shifted into a centrally coordinated and de-centrally delivered model. By centrally coordinating advising we were able to smoothly move to adopt the Student Success Collaborative and then the SSC Campus platform—both from the Education Advisor Board. This gave advisors access to significant amounts of data and information, including a risk analysis, about the students they were working with.
The adoption of SSC Campus also let us begin to bring together our early alert system, and provide linkages to our student tutoring centers across campus.
We now have an integrated platform that helps us collect and display student data, performance predictors on key courses identified by faculty in the academic programs and funnel early alerts. We can then close the circle by letting faculty, advisors, and the students themselves use the platform to request tutoring sessions. Notes on the participation and success of those sessions now also flow back to advisors.
On a second level, our focus on retention and student persistence means that we have much more detailed information at the enterprise level. We have data on student persistence and retention at the program level, disaggregated data that slices the student population in many overlapping ways, and college-level data that tracks large institutional trends while they are still actionable.
Both key aspects (adoption of SSC Campus and improved data flows of existing enterprise level data) have heightened our awareness of the need for point-in-time data analysis that leads to mitigating actions. We are continually asking ourselves, “what is the data telling us and what does it mean we should be doing right now to improve the trend in the data?”
Evo: Looking to the future, how do you plan to continue to shift and transform to maintain this focus on positive student outcomes?
JF/AA: We are currently moving in a few directions that we expect to stay on track going forward.
As a starting point, one area where there is still plenty room for improvement is how we track and handle intercollege transfers and walk them from one advising office to the other.
In terms of ongoing work, we’re looking to make smaller and smaller subsets of data—often housed at the program level—accessible in a college or institutional context. We are also in the process of identifying still-present university barriers to improving student outcomes.
We’re putting increasing focus on the essential importance of micro-level interactions between student and faculty; in a classroom, on a syllabus, in the quality of feedback the student receives, and in the timing of support services.
Finally, there is significant work going on around the growth mindset language embedded (or not) in our communications with students, including academic standing (probation and warning) letters, financial aid (SAP) letters, and other messaging.
Author Perspective: Administrator