This reflection from Joyce was one of many that stood out to me when I visited with graduating seniors at Miami Dade College, one of the largest colleges in the country, back in 2018. I’m always excited to hear directly from college and university students about their postsecondary education journeys. As you can imagine, their stories are compelling, and no two are ever the same.
Even so, I find that the importance of student-focused programs and supports often surface as common themes, connecting students’ journeys and helping drive their academic success. Student advising, guided pathways with choices, and flexibility around credit transfers are some specific examples that come to mind.
With advising, researchers have found that 52% of first-year college students and 53% of college seniors discuss their academic interests, course selections, or academic performance with an advisor five or more times during the school year.
But the disruptive impacts of COVID-19 complicated students’ experiences and challenged the way institutions teach and provide student supports, pushing many of them to pivot and reshape operations, curricula, and approaches to student engagement.
What is beginning to emerge out of those changes are exemplars of innovation in postsecondary education. Even more compelling is that many of these institutions have in common a student-focused commitment that was firmly in place before the pandemic began. That commitment to student-centered policies and practices was like strengthening a muscle institutions later had to call upon in developing new strategies in response to COVID, leading to greater impact and better student outcomes.
When I last visited Delaware State University (DSU), one of the nation’s many Historically Black Colleges and Universities, well before the pandemic, I saw an administration that put students first in its decision-making. Changing curricula and educational pathways is a tough call, but they did it in response to programs that were ineffective in serving students at that time.
When the pandemic disrupted operations, DSU kept the focus on students and accelerated digital learning efforts that were already underway; executed on curricula redesign, reimagining the future of online instruction; and improved digital engagement through better access to technology and training for students and staff. Today, new online programs are available, more students are enrolling and completing courses, and collaboration among faculty is sparking even more creativity in educating and supporting students.
Columbia Basin College, a public community college, is another institution reimagining its course offerings. In response to the pandemic, students can now attend classes face-to-face, synchronously online, asynchronously online, or as a hybrid of modalities, or they can select HyFlex.
With the hybrid option, the instructor sets policies and guidelines for the course that students follow, and instruction is provided in a specific location and on a specific day and time. Part of the course is completed synchronously or asynchronously online, depending on course content. However, with HyFlex, students determine how, when, and where they attend class. They have the option to attend each class period in any modality on any given day, experiencing seamless learning regardless of choice throughout the semester. In-person attendance is not required.
Also worth highlighting is Miami Dade College’s student engagement work. When I visited in 2018, I was there to provide the commencement address to students eager to take on the world! While there, I didn’t miss the opportunity to speak with a few students about their college experiences, namely Rudolph, Luis, Isabel, and Joyce.
I heard in those conversations how critically important student supports are and how Miami Dade College’s motto of “Students First” had a very personal and tangible impact on their academic success.
I’m not surprised that today Miami Dade College’s individualized touch continues but in an innovative way using “nudge theory” to text students, strategically encouraging engagement. Nudging, which utilizes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to encourage certain behaviors, proved powerful during the pandemic when students couldn’t connect in person. The college leveraged technology to maintain its reach and the early results are promising.
Although technology alone is not a silver bullet, this example illustrates that it can be an enabler for student support leading to greater impact.
It’s impressive to see innovation happening across the postsecondary education landscape to the benefit of students. The steps institutions like Delaware State University, Columbia Basin College, and Miami Dade College are taking are part of a journey toward transformation, a journey that includes a student-centered mission, accountability, innovation, and collaboration.
For the foundation, investing in that transformation leads to change that improves student outcomes and eliminates disparities across race and income. That investment also helps institutions build and strengthen the muscle and ability to pivot in support of students when needed, a muscle that became pivotal throughout the pandemic.
These examples of innovation are encouraging, and I’m looking forward to getting back out into the field, engaging with our postsecondary partners around innovation, and hearing more unique stories from students on their way to completing a postsecondary certificate or degree.