A Strong Foundation for a Student-Centered Evolution

Strong cultures of care and communication have helped Frontier Set colleges and universities sustain student success over the long term and evolve rapidly in a challenging year

A Student-Centered Evolution

The turmoil of the pandemic and the ongoing reckoning with racial injustice forced a focus on—or, in some cases, a realization of—the depth of racial inequity on campuses across the country. Many colleges and universities found themselves facing unprecedented challenges, at times exacerbated by a habitual lack of focus on students and ongoing inequities. The Frontier Set members certainly faced these same societal challenges, but a well-established, earnest dedication to seeing and knowing students helped them continue to enroll, retain, and progress students through a turbulent period.

Tools for understanding students’ needs, and a commitment to delivering on those needs, helped Frontier Set members effectively and equitably transition to remote operations—and then build on that transition to become future-ready by cultivating new skills in faculty and staff. Across the Frontier Set, a culture of care and readiness to adapt are enabled by consistent, cohesive, data-driven leader communications, which provide faculty and staff with solid guidance as they evolve to serve their students best.

The trials of 2020 drove home the necessity of understanding students, especially students of color, in order to make and sustain change.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, a Hispanic-serving institution, noted: “If you’re not looking and listening closely enough, you run the risk of eliding differences in students that matter.” It’s those differences that help institutions meaningfully reflect on their institutional practices to better serve students of color, and tailor solutions to meet them exactly where they are. Claflin University, a historically Black university in South Carolina, saw that “without a clear focus on the type of students the institution serves, it would have been very difficult for leadership to meet the rapid demands needed to minimize the disruption of the pandemic on students’ learning experiences.”

Similarly, Guilford Technical Community College, in North Carolina, pointed to the importance of a holistic view of students, writing that “Another staple of the college is the acknowledgment that our students struggle with non-academic and academic barriers, and a commitment to mitigate those barriers whenever we can.” They, like many others, know that helping students solve for basic life necessities such as rent, childcare, and food makes attendance and progression possible.

The University of North Carolina Greensboro reflected on the value of understanding students’ lived experiences, especially as a minority-serving institution: “Embracing [our students’] realities enables us to fully focus on improving the structures and supports [that are] necessary for our students to have the same likelihood of success as students who begin their academic careers with more advantages.” This empathetic view of students can increase willingness to make changes, and to provide targeted support for the students who need it most, as it gives faculty and staff a shared goal and a path forward to respond to student needs in meaningful ways. For example, at Claflin University faculty, staff, and administrators, along with students, volunteered early in the pandemic to share their experience and expertise in exploring options and building plans for fully remote learning, hybrid learning, and returning to campus. United by a common goal, the teams helped the institution evaluate its current operations and pointed to opportunities to grow and better meet students’ expectations. Guilford Technical Community College saw this prove out in a recent interview, when a candidate asked the hiring committee what they like best about working at Guilford Tech and the first reply was: “A college-wide willingness to try something different if there was a good chance that it would make the student’s experience better.” Rooting change in students’ needs gives additional urgency and weight to efforts, as does a consideration of faculty needs.

A strong understanding of both student and faculty needs led many Frontier Set institutions to improve the experience of learning and teaching online, and to offer important support services in the online environment.

Often this meant providing technology (devices and access to the internet), but it also included broad thinking about how to best enable student success online. At Jackson State University, each instructor was asked to create a “Sustainability Plan” to think through all aspects of transitioning traditional face-to-face courses to online programming for remote access, and the ramifications of having to do it quickly. Portland State University leaned on their existing Pedagogy and Faculty Support team to balance faculty’s immediate needs as they transitioned to remote teaching with the long-term plan for academic success outlined in their Students First initiative.

Another solution was training and tools, for both students and faculty. Though remote learning isn’t new, for many students a fully remote college experience is. Santa Fe College, realizing that incoming students might be overwhelmed by new modalities, quickly developed and launched “Learn How to Learn Online,” which explains course formats and Canvas (an online learning management system), and spotlights online support services such as free tutoring. The University System of Georgia launched a new site called Keep Learning USG, aimed at helping students of all ages adjust to the new reality of online and hybrid learning. The site addresses expectations of students during remote learning, as well as providing reassurance that support exists for a range of student needs, both academic and personal.

On the faculty side, New Jersey City University offered “Fundamentals of Online Teaching” along with “Fundamentals of Online Learning,” and Florida International University used micro-credentialing to issue more than 1,100 “Remote Teach Ready” badges. Overall, the move online forced campuses to become more future-ready, converting cumbersome paper processes to digital ones and reorienting to encourage more remote and flexible work.

Frontier Set members are seeing their investments in long-term capacity-building pay off in the form of adaptability: the slow, steady work of building up capacity to better meet students’ needs has made them stable, strong, and ready to shift to meet new challenges.

Fayetteville State University reflected this way: “Capacity-building is not only about funding and receiving services (e.g., training, consulting, travel, etc.), but realizing sustainable solutions and their impact over time. Capacity-building is not a one-time effort to improve short-term effectiveness, but a continuous improvement strategy that results in sustainable solutions. Short-term evolution is the discoveries, changes, and gains along the way; however, long-term capacity-building work results in the organization’s ability to achieve its mission and sustain itself over time.”

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College saw a clear example of this: in 2019 they created a teaching and learning center to help faculty redesign their curriculum for a fall 2020 transition to eight-week courses. When the pandemic arrived, many faculty had already developed additional flexibility in their classrooms in terms of delivery modes and adjustments to hands-on experiences, as well as creating classes that allow students to maintain the work-life-school balance they need.

Data helps with these shifts, too. Georgia State University surveyed students via chatbot about preferences on course delivery and schedules, and then responded rapidly by implementing changes that reflected students’ desires—made possible by both infrastructure and the respect the data team had amassed over a long track record of support and performance.

Well-earned trust in and respect for leaders ties all this together. When mid-level and executive leaders effectively collaborate—and are backed up by data and trusted by faculty and staff—they have the ability to both hold the campus steady through extraordinary external change and drive necessary internal change.

At many institutions, the differentiation between mid-level and executive-level leaders became more pronounced in 2020—in a positive way—as they balanced the load of urgent short-term needs and maintaining a long-term vision. The University of North Carolina Greensboro put it this way: “Mid-level leaders are the solution-creators. They understand the ways daily operations and student needs intersect, which creates opportunities for creative solutions. Executive-level leaders do not have this same nuanced understanding of student needs or daily operations, but have the ability to set the expectation that student success is a priority and therefore creative solutions should be identified and implemented.”

The University Innovation Alliance, one of the Frontier Set intermediaries, noted that “strong, consistent engagement and communication from senior student success leaders … provide[s] mid-level leaders and staff with direction and empowerment to be creative and proactive in discovering what works to improve the success of unique student populations.” It’s critical that leaders cultivate environments of open “collaboration, innovation, and risk-taking” in order to make way for more meaningful, holistic sense-making of data and opportunities for change.

Hierarchies of leadership and support are useful when mid- and executive-level leaders see each other as partners owning different realms of leadership—and the same holds true for state systems and their members’ presidents. For example, The University System of Georgia noted that a long-established collaborative partnership with their institutions allowed members to see them as a meaningful change resource rather than a regulatory body. The Tennessee Board of Regents found that providing solutions (such as health officials and technical capacity) that empowered presidents was key to supporting its institutions over the year.

Across the Frontier Set, a reliable cadence of clear, cohesive, student-centered communications with faculty and staff—often leveraging existing channels and key data points—was crucial to building resilience and leading change.

At many institutions, the pandemic necessitated an increase in communications, which typically meant an increase in meetings, often to a daily basis, which helped teams manage through a crisis that shifted every hour. Arizona State University’s administrative leadership team adopted daily meetings to ensure the information guiding decisions was widely shared and understood by staff. At Georgia State University, weekly student success data meetings became daily in order to analyze data, spot obstacles to student progression, quickly adjust strategies, and adopt new interventions and technologies.

One additional benefit of this increase in meetings was an increase among faculty and staff in empathy and connection for students. From the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley: “One thing which enabled us to pivot quickly was this swell of empathy and caring for one another. We really did put students first—at all levels––and we shifted quickly to a model in which leaders at multiple levels were meeting multiple times a week, sometimes daily, to ensure timely, clear communication. All the walls we had set up between divisions almost disappeared overnight, and we knew we needed each other to get through this.”

Frontier Set members have always prioritized students, but in 2020 that commitment was underscored as not just the right thing to do, but essential to ensuring student and institutional success, especially with the transition to remote learning. Leaders shepherded teams through challenge and change with a steady hand and voice, instilling a spirit of innovation and flexibility while deepening capacity to serve students. Faculty and staff, driven by a commitment to their students and established cultures of care and innovation, took on immense challenges to see, hear, and support their students, building on the foundation of equitable student success that is at the heart of the Frontier Set.