How to make your student success program a strategic part of your institution’s future
Your institution has made a strong commitment to improving student outcomes. After much research and wrangling, you’ve secured resources and launched a new initiative. Organizational changes and staff development are underway. Though initial results are promising, there’s more work to be done.
And then the senior administrator who spurred institutional buy-in leaves to take a new role. Or the advisors in whom you’ve invested precious training resources decide that this job isn’t for them.
Or both occur, at once.
What happens next? What can you do to keep your initiative anchored in a sea of organizational change?
These three institutional leaders found the key to success — and stability — by focusing on outcomes, supporting their team and aligning their initiative with the institutional mission.
“We need to prove that we’re moving the needle”: Making your initiative a leadership priority
Taking on a leadership role is a delicate balancing act. At the same time new appointees are getting familiar with ongoing work, they’re also putting their own stamp on the direction ahead.
“Suddenly there is going to be a new vision and a new set of priorities,” explained Kristin Gurrola, an InsideTrack operations manager who’s partnered with many institutions during times of change. “Everyone is always wondering, ‘are they going to support this initiative?’ Sometimes you have to take a pause, because you need to hear from the new leader.”
When an initiative is just gathering steam, getting an endorsement from a new senior leader can be make-or-break. It’s often up to the program’s head to make a case for why it should continue.
“Anytime you want something to be institutionalized, you have to have the buy-in from upper administration,” said Dr. Sara Garver, Cal Poly Pomona’s Associate Dean of Academic Programs and Student Success.
Her institution is in the second year of an initiative training student support staff and faculty advisors in coaching methodology. In the time since the initiative was first planned, a new dean and a new vice president of student affairs have come on board.
“Deans and upper leadership have lots of asks for student success programs and initiatives. We need to prove that we’re moving the needle,” Garver added.
Demonstrating strong outcomes is one of the best ways to make a good first impression.
“The communication around specific outcomes, the communication around what we believe to be the positive benefits, is really important,” said John Grant, Dean of Student Development at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
For Grant, support from the vice president of student services meant that the new student coaching program he was leading could become a core part of the college culture, ultimately expanding to multiple teams across the institution.
“It helped to have the executive level saying that this is an expectation, not only for our current staff but for any new hires in terms of maintaining momentum around the project,” Grant said.
The idea of “maintaining” was key for Grant. The initiative was groundbreaking in terms of elevating student outcomes and empowering every student-facing team member to support student success. But when he presented the initiative to executive leaders, he emphasized continuity.
Evolution, not revolution
Hitching your initiative to institutional priorities is one effective way to give it staying power.
Grant recalled, “Most important was helping to paint a picture for our executive leadership of how this work aligns with the other strategic interventions we do at the college. It doesn’t necessarily seem like one more thing, but really enhances the work we’re already doing.”
Dr. Tracy Pascua Dea, Assistant Vice Provost for Student Success at Saint Mary’s College of California, painted that picture with guiding documents that illustrated her program’s evolution. Her institution’s student success initiative, which developed a new coaching program, took shape while a new provost and a new vice provost were transitioning into their roles.
“I put together a document called ‘The Evolution of Student Success’ and gave it to the provost,” Pascua Dea said. “When my new vice provost came on board, I gave her a document called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward.’”
Both documents described the history and context of the coaching program — now in its fourth year — in alignment with the institution’s strategic plan. Pascua Dea was also able to showcase her team’s successes.
“In a time of uncertainty, a program like ours with foundation, goals and strategy provided grounding and clarity,” she said.
“You have to have something that’s guiding you”: Stemming the tide of staff attrition
Continuity, stability, strong outcomes — when a student success initiative can demonstrate all three, it has a better chance of taking root and transforming institutional culture.
As program leaders know, it takes a dedicated and skilled staff who have committed themselves to the difficult work of professional development to make it all come together.
So what happens when turnover strikes your team?
“It can feel like your investment walks out the door every time someone leaves,” said Gurrola.
When new folks arrive to fill those vacancies, they’ll need to learn a role that’s new to them and, in many ways, new to the school.
That’s why, Gurrola continued, “our focus is on sustainability. At the staff level, that becomes a conversation about how to maintain quality and sustain training.”
A no-surprises approach to hiring
Quality work often begins with the hiring process.
Careful hiring decisions are especially important when a new student success initiative depends on learning a new student support methodology. The advantage of hiring new staff after an initiative has kicked off is that you know what you’re looking for.
For Garver, that knowledge came firsthand, after a year of managing her own coaching roster.
“I’m glad I did that, because I know how much time coaching takes and what it involves,” she said. Her program’s job descriptions now make clear that managing a roster of students is a core responsibility.
Beyond understanding specific duties, hiring for an ongoing initiative helps you find staff who are committed to project goals from the start.
“I’m a firm believer that hiring is one of the most important things we do,” Grant said. “We’re bringing people into this culture who are aligned with not only what we do but the way we want to do it.”
But commitment and willingness can only achieve so much. To make sure that good intentions turn into good results, training should take place early and often.
Establish a training routine
Whenever a new team member joined, the coaching program at Saint Mary’s College offered a training “boot camp” to get them up to speed. Retreats and meetings held throughout the year also “remind and center folks on long-term vision and goals,” Pascua Dea said.
“It emphasizes the seriousness of what we’re doing,” Pascua Dea noted.
For her, an important element of the training is reminding people how their work connects to the institution’s strategic goals. Executive leadership aren’t the only ones who need to hear the message.
She likens the strategic plan to her team’s compass. “You have to have something that’s guiding you,” she said.
There’s another true north that can guide staff training: the student experience.
Staff can easily get discouraged when learning a new methodology, especially if it’s in stark contrast to what they did before. To keep frustrated staff engaged, Grant compares the staff learning curve with a student’s educational journey.
“We talk a lot about persistence for our students. And then as staff sometimes we’ll start a project and not persist in it. To me, it’s an analogy that is helpful to think about answering why, when things get difficult, we should continue in this work,” Grant explained.
“Commitment and flexibility”: Partnering for sustainable success
Even as these leaders experienced institutional change, they each had the support of an external partner providing built-in stability.
For institutions facing similar situations, a partner’s support can encompass everything from program development to providing on-the-ground resources and strategizing to achieve impact.
Beyond tactical support, one of the key ways a partner can support an initiative’s longevity is by ensuring that all stakeholders recognize its value and impact.
“We can help our partners explain in a compelling way what the initiative has achieved. We make sure they’re equipped to keep the conversation going,” said Gurrola.
Cal Poly Pomona’s partnership with InsideTrack brought the right combination of expertise and flexibility to make needed adjustments. Garver explained that one development they’re considering is supplementing internal staff bandwidth with InsideTrack resources.
“I think we’re going to move toward more of a blended model using some InsideTrack coaches and using some of our own,” Garver said, noting that while she wouldn’t have moved in that direction initially, it makes sense for the way the program has evolved.
At Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, working with InsideTrack enabled Grant to expand the scope of the initiative from one department to six different student-facing teams.
“We continued to push InsideTrack to think of other ways we can build momentum. That kind of commitment and flexibility was crucial in helping us think creatively and innovatively about how we could get the most impact out of this strategy,” Grant said.
Download 5 tips from our institutional partners on sustaining new initiatives in the midst of institutional change.