A homegrown approach to student success

By Jill Williams

A Virginia college created a model of success based on its own unique culture, strengths, needs and business processes.

Here in the Appalachian Mountains, we value independence. It’s our greatest strength and our greatest weakness.

It’s a weakness when it means that we are disinclined to ask for help when we clearly need it. It’s a strength when it means that we create our own homegrown solutions to our student success challenges rather than relying on tools and models from outside vendors that may not fit the contours of our college’s culture, strengths and challenges. That’s what we’ve done in Dublin, Virginia, at New River Community College (NRCC), where more students are making it through classes and sticking around for subsequent semesters.

Since fall 2014, the college has seen a 25-percent reduction in student withdrawals from courses and a 6.9-percent increase in fall-to-spring retention, all while grades have remained steady. We attribute this incremental success to the implementation of what we call our intentional engagement model of student support – a model that has been developed internally at our institution based on our unique culture, strengths, needs and business processes.

Outside the mold

Several years ago, when community colleges nationally started broadening their focus on expanding access to college to also include expanding success in college, NRCC took a data-driven approach to create a model that fits the unique contours of our institution, as opposed to adopting one of the countless one-size-fits-all approaches currently on the market.

A buzzword in the student success discussions nationally has been “predictive analytics,” but when NRCC staff attempted to identify the data points that most strongly predict if and when a student might be in danger of dropping out, we found it difficult to adapt the concept to our reality in a way that is practical and actionable.

Approximately two-thirds of our students are low-income and/or first-generation college students, and almost all work while they are in school, many for 40 hours or more a week. Compounding these dynamics is that aforementioned Appalachian culture that values independence. While normally a strength, if valuing independence means that our students won’t ask for help when they need it, it is also a challenge.

Meet the Bloodhound Gang

What NRCC needed, we decided, was a culture change to a new definition of independence, one that emphasizes joint accountability and asking for help when needed. It isn’t possible to change the culture by focusing on one aspect of our students’ lives (like textbook costs). Nor is it possible to change the culture by focusing just on a subpopulation of our student body. In fact, we decided it wasn’t possible to change the culture by simply focusing on our students. Our culture change initiative needed to incorporate all of our students, faculty and staff, full- and part-time.

So, three years ago, NRCC established the intentional engagement model of student support. The success of this model rests in the ways it was created and implemented by faculty and staff all over campus, but it is empowered by two significant new components – the Accountability in Student Learning Program team of connection specialists and a homegrown technology platform we call CLAS (Connecting Learning Assets and Students).

For the past three years, all NRCC students have been assigned to one of our connection specialists whose responsibility is to connect students in their caseloads with the campus and community resources they need to meet their educational goals. Students first meet their connection specialists at a newly required New Student Orientation where they also share their preferred contact information and educational goals. Over the course of their studies at NRCC, most students develop a relationship with their connection specialists.

While students often reach out to their connection specialists for support with anything from transportation needs to academic advising questions (we still have separate faculty and professional academic advisors), most contact occurs when connection specialists, lightheartedly nicknamed the Bloodhound Gang, reach out proactively to students through phone calls, text messages and even showing up at their classes.

There’s more to the story! The full article is posted a CC Daily.

Jill Williams

is director of the Accountability in Student Learning Program (ASLP) at New River Community College in Virginia.