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'Frontier Set' Schools Share 5 Secrets of Student Success

happy group of college grads

A new report outlines five broad themes that 31 institutional participants have found will make a difference in increasing student success in college and eliminating attainment gaps. Those key ingredients are: having a "student-centered mission"; the use of data to inform decision-making; maintaining a "collaborative, empowered environment"; a commitment to continual improvement; and establishing goals and milestones as a form of accountability.

The Frontier Set is the name given to a group of research universities, state systems, community colleges, urban-serving universities and minority-serving schools, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, that are part of the program. They were chosen specifically because they were "disproportionately narrowing the achievement gap in comparison to their peers," according to a status report recently issued by the group.

The project, supported with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has a straightforward goal: to improve student outcomes, close attainment gaps and "find, implement, research and document" the policies and practices that work for them in gaining student success. All are working with educational organizations that deliver coaching, assessment and "packaging and sharing" of lessons learned.

Two years into a five-year program, the colleges and universities were asked to write "letters" to their peers that outlined what they've learned so far. The five themes emerged from the contents of those letters.

All of the institutions have a "student-centered mission," which is shared by leadership and faculty. For example, Florida International University has turned the concept of "college-ready students" on its head by declaring that it needs to "constantly strive to be student-ready" and to meet students "where they are," through services and tools, such as My E-Advisor student dashboard and learning assistants.

They use data to inform their decision-making. All of the participants have committed to tracking specific metrics:

  • Credit accumulation threshold;
  • Credit completion ratio;
  • Gateway course completion ratio;
  • Retention rate;
  • Graduation rate; and
  • Number of completions.

San Jacinto Community College, as an example, dug into the data to find that students took an average of 94 semester credit hours to obtain an associate's degree that only required 60 hours. What administrators found was that "students tended to wander from course to course," a wandering that was "encouraged," but without acknowledgement of the increased student loan debt they were incurring or the delays it created in finishing their programs. "Motivated by their realization," the report noted, "San Jacinto implemented a pathways philosophy, and oriented their staff to that new mindset."

The institutions also maintain what the report called a "collaborative, empowered environment." This culture "fosters collaboration, encourages experimentation and celebrates success," the report stated, through robust communications and creation of a "rigorous planning process" that brings people together around "a core set of principles and goals." As CUNY College of Staten Island pointed out, "The ability to change involves a complex multitude of elements, all of which rely on acceptance and buy-in at every level."

They've also committed to continual improvement, the process of learning, building, testing and improving. As Fayetteville State explained, "A transforming institution establishes a culture of continuous improvement that is evident in the willingness of leaders, faculty and staff to look critically at all aspects of the university, learn from other institutions with similar goals, experiment with new techniques and tools, assess progress and adjust strategies based on outcomes."

Participants have also established goals and communicated milestones as a form of accountability. Harper College, for instance, has created a website of dashboard indicators to show how the school is doing on key aspects of its plan. Santa Fe College has gone a step further by disaggregating the data down to the levels of department, discipline and course levels. This helps faculty see how their specific efforts contribute to a better student experience and helps them register how they're adding to overall institutional performance.

The full report, "Working Together for Equitable Student Outcomes," is openly available on the Frontier Set website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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