Embracing Change to Improve Student Success

By Emily Rogan

In Illinois, one college embraces change theory, restructures some departments and offers more support for students who need it most.

To make any progress toward student success and plans for the future, Jerry Weber, president of College of Lake County, in Grayslake, Illinois, says there’s one thing that is especially important: change.

A few years ago, administrators at the college, who were “in the middle of [their] journey toward student success,” noticed a student success rate that was lower than the state average.

The first step for making change: Establish a data warehouse and examine the college’s systems and structures. Then, “we spent some time doing pilots and bringing in speakers to get people ready for change,” Weber says. The next steps meant big change, but the college took it in stride.

Restructuring the status quo

The biggest change: The college decided to combine departments to better address issues around student success. “Student development and educational affairs were combined under one provost. Then, they’d all be talking about student success as one group,” says Weber.

Officials also reallocated resources within the budget to create new academic coaching positions and bridge programs. These additional layers of support help underprepared students transition from high school to college, providing mentoring and advising.

Communication is key

Institutional changes such as these are never easy, Weber says. To address concerns, he found that it was important to hold frequent discussions and forums for affected staff and faculty members.

“In change theory,” Weber explains, “they say that change can take place if everybody perceives there’s an urgency for change; or, if not, they see it’s a great opportunity somehow.” Positive communication is key, and leaders might have to rely on some people to convince others to recognize the benefits.

At the same time, he says, there must be room for skeptics to share their views when looking at an issue and examining it in a new light.

How leaders can ease the transition

To help ensure a smooth transition when making fundamental changes at your college, Weber suggests keeping these things in mind:

  • Various groups creating change need to have access to decision-makers and people at the cabinet level to work through issues and gain support.
  • Faculty members must be engaged in the change; groups should be led or co-chaired by faculty leaders.
  • As president, it’s important to communicate the reasons for and benefits of the changes taking place. “Be straightforward about issues when there are challenges,” Weber says.

Change has had an effect

Student success rates at the college are shifting closer to the state average because of these changes.

Still, Weber says, an improving economy brings dropping enrollments. And with more competition from online educational providers, it’s necessary for community colleges to have a strategic plan that’s future-forward.

To that end, his college is currently combining different areas to develop a new marketing department. “We have to communicate our brand and what makes it special,” Weber says.

“There are these forces that are acting upon us and questioning the way we do business,” he says. “It’s important for every institution to start planning for all the changes that are coming, or at least be agile.”

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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