Dispatches from UIA, Pt. 2: "It’s Like a GPS for Your Academic Path”

April 5, 2018

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

A team of 21 NCAN staff members and member representatives, including 12 focusing on starting or expanding college success programming, is at the University Innovation Alliance’s National Summit in Atlanta this week. This is the second of two posts recapping the conference’s events. Find the first here.

Michael Sorrel was so afraid to fail that he put himself in a hospital bed after a cardiac event. The president of Paul Quinn College, an HBCU in Dallas, TX, recounted the story during his “keyNOT” speech on the evening of day two of the University Innovation Alliance’s National Summit in Atlanta. Sorrel took to the stage to warn attendees about the dangers of letting fear conquer their lives and impede their dreams and ambitions. His advice: learn to lead with love, get in the arena for something about which you are passionate, and make sure that your “next step is better than your now.” 

Sorrel’s theme of coping with the fear of failure brought the day full circle. Sukhwant Jhaj, vice provost for academic innovation and student success at Portland State University, opened the day by noting that all of us deal with skepticism and fear. “We are skeptical of setting out new ideas. Fearful of failure. Fearful of rejection from colleagues. Fearful we won’t have adequate resources, that plans will fall apart, and that people won’t live up to their obligations.” He urged moving past fear to get to action. 

Everything about the National Summit's second day was not as fearful as its bookends, though the day did focus on tough, in-depth questions about how to improve student completion at colleges and universities.

Jhaj’s speech was one of a series of six “Ed Talks” that kicked off the day. The 10-minute presentations previewed larger presentations from which attendees could choose to take in. Jhaj offered three ideas of how to get past fear:

  1. There are two kinds of things: those in and out of your control. We need to let go of things outside of our control.
  2. If we want to lead organizations past the fear of change, we have to change the way we solve problems. 
  3. We need to use design thinking (a creative approach to design that is responsive to audiences and end users and focuses on problem-solving) to put students in the middle of the design process.

From theoretical approaches to conquering fear to practical approaches for serving students, the audience also learned more about Monitoring Advising Analytics to Promote Success (MAAPS), a supplemental approach to student advising employed to varying degrees by the 11 public research universities comprising the UIA. MAAPS offers personalized academic maps, regular monitoring of students for on-track status, identification of risk factors based on data and analytics, and proactive advising interventions.

“It’s like a GPS for your academic path,” explained Allison Calhoun-Brown, associate vice president for student success at Georgia State University. “If you take a wrong turn, it immediately starts recalculating so a student can earn a degree successfully. It’s common sense at scale. What you think is really complicated is really us just paying attention. If a student registers for the wrong class, someone reaches out to them. If a student fails a class, someone reaches out to them.”

The summit also made room for a topic now familiar to NCAN members: connecting college and career success. Michelle Weise, SVP of Workforce Strategies and chief innovation officer at Strada Education Network, highlighted her work with Gallup interviewing 350 18- to 65-year-olds every day for two years. Across this pool of more than 250,000 people, the theme is that they enroll in higher education to improve their career outcomes and get a better job. “Are the colleges delivering?” asked Weise. “The answer is no.”

Weise bemoaned writing off underemployment as a “short-term problem” but explained that “the problem with this line of thinking is that our research shows that in most fields … if you start off underemployed in your first job, you have a high likelihood of remaining underemployed five and 10 years out. The problem is even worse for women who are more likely to start out underemployed no matter their discipline.” She concluded, “We have to think critically about that first job and the hand-off between education and employment.” This is a topic NCAN has focused on over the past year, and it is the topic of our Spring Training series this month.

She reminded the audience, “We are in the business of preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist. In 2014, the top 10 jobs on LinkedIn didn’t exist 10 years prior … We have to assume that learning will become more frequent and episodic; we can’t think of it as a linear pathway or trajectory. We have to think of it as lots of highways with many, many on- and off-ramps.”

From connecting college and career, the focus shifted to food insecurity/homelessness. Clare Cady, scholar-practitioner at Temple University’s Hope Lab and College and University Food Bank, discussed a Hope Lab study released this week. The study surveyed 43,000 students at 66 colleges in 20 states and DC and found that 36 percent of university students and 42 percent of community college students were food-insecure in the past 30 days. Expanding that timeframe, 51 percent of community college students were food-insecure in the past year. Nine percent of university students and 12 percent of community college students were homeless in the past year. These food and housing insecurities are self-evidently problematic, but they are particularly tough on college students because of their association with poor academic outcomes, including lower grades, poorer mental and physical health, and statistically significant relationships between housing insecurity and postsecondary persistence and completion.

One of the more interesting advances in “conference technology” displayed at the summit was the “flipped panels” that found three to four experts making very brief introductory presentations before yielding the floor to audience discussion and questions. One such panel on “leveraging predictive analytics and proactive advising” found the audience spiritedly discussing the role of using data to improve student outcomes.

“Predictive analytics means not leaving students to chance,” said Cassandra Alvarado of the University of Texas at Austin, whose institutions embrace of predictive analytics and proactive advising has yielded a 26-percent increase in four-year graduation rates and double-digit graduation rate increases in key underrepresented student groups. 

Not everyone buys into the approach. Discussion in the session touched on how some academic advisors are very uncomfortable with predictive analytics, viewing their own knowledge that the algorithm does not think the student in front of them will be successful as an inevitable change to how their student-advisor interaction will go. “Advisors were so worried about it being a self-fulfilling prophecy that they tried to universalize interventions, which defeated the purpose,” one attendee lamented. Academic advisors uncomfortable with targeting students should be reminded that we have always targeted students (see: student-athletes) with interventions, and that we do where we think there is a positive return on investment. 

Another key topic was how to sell predictive analytics to students and answer the question of why they are getting additional supports (hint: they are usually happy to get the additional supports if they are accompanied with an explanation that similar students benefited from them). 

Throughout the session, the critical role of academic advisors arose repeatedly. “We need to elevate academic advisors,” one attendee said. “They’re the last person your student will see before they never come back to your campus.”

Once again, the NCAN team gathered for “Team Time,” which on Wednesday focused on two questions: What has been most relevant at this conference, and what has been most valuable? After discussing these questions, some NCAN members discussed where their program fit on the axis between incremental and fast change, how to triage student needs and interventions, establishing measurement and communication plans, and balancing between quality and quantity of student interventions.

Day three of the summit will offer practical approaches to “design thinking” and “process mapping.” Check back Friday for more insights from this innovative conference, and remember: When universities collaborate, students win!


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