Overcoming Challenges to Keep Students on a Pathway to Success
2022 ATD Network College Reflections Summary
The following report is based on the 2022 reflections of a cross-section of ATD Network colleges who responded to our inquiry and the qualitative analysis of those responses. The summary — which address ongoing challenges, the transformational work of colleges, and ATD’s role as partner — presents top-line reflections about key issues some of our institutions are experiencing that might encourage additional thought within the Network. The document is not meant to provide a definitive picture of what is happening across our institutions or a comprehensive analysis of the field, but to share experiences from leaders about challenges they are facing, new directions they are forging, and what they are accomplishing with ATD’s support.
In line with institutional efforts to center the student experience in our redesign efforts, we have organized this year’s summary around what colleges are doing to support the student journey to, through, and beyond college.
The Ongoing Structural Impacts of COVID-19
ATD Network colleges made it clear that the impact of COVID-19 is ongoing and significant. Even though we did not ask directly about COVID-19 on this year’s annual reflection, 85 percent of colleges brought it up as they discussed challenges, most notably in the areas of student well-being and expectations of their relationship with the college they attend, enrollment declines, staffing challenges, and the overall need for space and time to recover.
While most colleges did not experience campus closures in 2022, quarantines became commonplace and unpredictable, interrupting students’ ability to attend class or keep up with their coursework. Equally challenging was the impact of the pandemic on students’ mental health. This was an issue before the pandemic, but now it has taken on even more importance given the uncertainty of the past two years as students have lost loved ones to COVID-19, or seen the pandemic challenge their families through job loss, difficulties in weathering lockdowns, or just more family struggles.
Unsurprisingly, most colleges felt the pandemic continued to significantly contribute to their enrollment declines. “Our college like many others, is currently having difficulty with enrollment, and this is likely to continue for some time. COVID exacerbated the enrollment challenges that were already occurring,” noted one college.
Colleges in some communities saw enrollment decline linked to meaningfully higher wages for entry-level jobs, making the workforce more attractive than college. Others attributed enrollment declines to the various and intersecting challenges that students still face because of the pandemic, including insufficient financial stability, family obligations, health concerns, and general challenges of social stability.
One institution’s response seems to have captured the position that many colleges may find themselves in, addressing multiple challenges at once while pressing forward:
Coming out of COVID has caused a number of challenges for many institutions … In particular, we are dealing with a significant decline in enrollment, more students dealing with greater mental health and well-being challenges, and economic strife at the local and state level which effects our institutional funding. The institution needs to take the time to heal from this particularly challenging period while, at the same time, remain focused on our mission of delivering strong programs and support services to our community members.
Hiring and retention of faculty and staff was a strong theme across about 40 percent of the responses. Several colleges noted that pandemic-related enrollment declines created budget shortfalls, which often resulted in hiring freezes. This was coupled with the intersecting trends of faculty/staff retirements and what has come to be known as the Great Resignation. Many responding colleges noted that they had positions go unfilled, leaving them understaffed and having to do more with less, which had a direct impact on students.
In the age of the “Great Resignation,” [the college] has also had people leave our employment, and we have had issues in finding appropriately skilled people to fill our open positions. One solution has been to convert vacant part-time positions into full-time positions to increase the likelihood of attracting better qualified and committed candidates.
Supporting Students on Pathways to Success
Despite these challenges, ATD Network colleges continued with their transformational work to make the pathways into, through, and out of college more student-centered, data-informed, and equity-focused.
Getting Students on the Path: Access and Enrollment
Colleges developed strategies to make sure they were meeting student expectations and needs, surveying potential and incoming students about their preferred instructional delivery mode as well as potential barriers to enrollment and success. One college, for instance, developed a comprehensive outreach program for first-time-in-college (FTIC) students:
Our program, created early in the pandemic and staffed by 634 employee volunteers, called FTIC students … to assess technology needs and guide individuals to support services. Over 67,000 contacts have been made to ask our students how they are doing and provide support. The program continues to assist with the ongoing experiences of our students. Our long-term results also show the rewards of our work and how well our students perform when they are focused on every sector of work at a college.
Another college focused their efforts on retaining students who previously withdrew from their classes by launching a re-engagement program:
To encourage enrollment, [the college] launched a re-engagement campaign in Fall 21. Through this campaign, over 3,000 students who had stopped out between Fall 20 and Summer 21 before completing a credential were contacted. Those who wished to re-enroll for Spring 21 were assisted through the process and received additional success coaching through the Spring term.
Colleges were also able to use Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) and Title III grants strategically to better support their students and provide a pathway for students to enroll or continue their studies.
Keeping Students on the Path: Momentum
A primary focus of the reflections was the work colleges were doing to ensure students stayed engaged in their studies and continued to gain momentum toward their goals. Colleges reported new uses of technology, strengthening programs to holistically support students, and implementing high-impact practices in the classroom.
Many institutions reported implementing new technologies or using technologies in new ways to better reach out and respond to student needs to help them stay on track. Colleges reported introducing improved student information systems, upgrades and creative uses of course management systems, early alert systems, online advising, and embracing communication systems that are flexible and far-reaching.
Colleges implemented new software programs to assist in the management and monitoring of student data.
- Early alert programs: Building early alert programs was the primary reason for implementing specific software programs to monitor student data and target supports to student populations.
- Data dashboards: Institutions reported using data dashboards to “empower faculty and staff to increase utilization of data in decision-making and planning.” For instance, one college worked to update a larger real-time enrollment dashboard to allow the institution to disaggregate students by race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background to help the college track trends and respond more quickly and effectively to student needs.
- Improved communications: Other colleges described how communication between students and faculty was improved through the implementation of customer relations management (CRM) systems. A CRM tool is also being used by one college to improve its college-going rate by automating and streamlining outreach to current and prospective students.
Responding institutions spoke frequently about developing systems to address equity gaps in student outcomes. One college implemented the CARE (connections, academics, resources and engagement) model with great success to revamp the first-year experience after disaggregated data revealed substantial equity gaps. Another college implemented a concierge service to guide students from the moment of their first inquiry to the college and to support them as they moved forward. A subsequent survey indicated that, as a result of this support, virtually all students responding (96.3 percent) knew their academic pathway, appreciated the financial support and additional resources, and valued their relationship with their academic advisor.
- Cross-functional approaches: Redesigns included cross-functional communication, targeted outreach, integrated early alert systems, case management techniques, and targeted advising. For some colleges this meant breaking down traditional silos. One of the colleges suggests that cooperative efforts that have brought staff and faculty across different parts of the college to Introduce many of these approaches has helped to minimize enrollment declines:
Our co-advising effort continues to be a great asset as we work with pandemic and economic needs of students. This group of front-line advisors are triaging early alerts, meetings with students, and connecting students to resources in a customized way. This effort is something that we have found is somewhat unique and has been a great help in minimizing the pandemic’s effect on enrollment.
- Coordinated partnerships: Colleges reported the importance of student advocacy centers as places where students could readily access wraparound services from the college and community partners.
Through partnerships with multiple area organizations, advocacy centers provide resources such as food, clothing, access to childcare, utility assistance, counseling, and more. Students receive aid to overcome social and financial obstacles, helping them achieve their educational goals. Student emergency aid is available through the Student Advocacy centers to help with temporary circumstances that could threaten a student’s ability to stay in school.
Partnerships with local agencies to provide on-campus counseling were also important in addressing student mental health needs. A college in Florida used Project Life grant funds to offer group and individual therapy sessions and special group therapy for particular student groups such as veterans, trauma survivors, or students at risk for substance abuse.
- A focus on belonging: Several colleges developed a sense of belonging through student-centered programming and by creating special meeting spaces and initiatives for marginalized students. For example, a college initiated a mentorship program and subsequent leadership summit for African American male students on their campus. Focusing on the same student population, another college implemented a legacy program, the Minority Male Success Initiative, designed to “connect minority male students to campus resources, enhance their academic and personal experiences, help navigate roadblocks, and provide additional support as needed.”
Teaching and Learning
Colleges made significant efforts to bolster teaching and learning, including creating new course modalities and innovation in gateway courses, and noted that implementing high-impact practices (HIPs) and supporting professional learning largely through Teaching and Learning Centers were top priorities.
Implementing high-impact practices
Eighty-six percent of the responding institutions indicated that they are actively using at least one HIP and a substantial number indicated that they are using multiple HIPs in their courses.
* Colleges are using multiple HIPs
Supporting professional learning
A substantial number of colleges mentioned the important role their teaching and learning centers play in offering a range of professional learning opportunities, covering everything from online teaching enhancement to racially equitable practices and embracing a growth mindset. New faculty academies were also implemented at many colleges to equip faculty with up-to-date teaching strategies and instructional materials. The teaching and learning centers played a pivotal role in moving equity values into practice by emphasizing inclusive syllabi and culturally responsive teaching practices. Colleges are also continuing their efforts to include part-time faculty in such opportunities with some indicating they are compensating part-time instructors to participate:
The College plans to compensate part-time faculty who complete twenty hours of training … Ensuring great online teaching requires an ability to navigate Blackboard, to design excellent curriculum for remote delivery, and to conduct classes in a manner that fully engages students. Full-time Distinguished Faculty participate as Part-Time Faculty Ambassadors, providing mentoring, support, professional development, and “Lunch & Learn” sessions. This includes the creation and maintenance of a Blackboard site, listserv, and annual conference for part-time faculty.
Focusing on Where the Path Leads: Mobility
In this year’s reflections, workforce partnerships and related pathways have become a priority for many ATD Network colleges and have been embedded into colleges’ strategic plans and missions. Several institutions have created and filled staff roles such as apprenticeship and labor market data coordinators that support their current and planned efforts related to workforce partnerships and programming. Others created committees to oversee their workforce needs and strategically manage initiatives.
[The college] has developed Chancellor’s Advisory Councils (CAC) in sectors that present high demand/high wage careers in workforce. Sectors are prioritized by labor market demand, competitive wages, and employment opportunities. CACs bring together C-Suite leaders from an industry sector for conversations about workforce needs and impending technological and operational changes. Partnerships with employers benefit programs in curriculum development/enhancement, facilities, student support, and employment. [The college] is careful to promote programs of study in demand now or in the near future.
Colleges are working to access labor market data and train advisors and faculty, so all can keep up with trends critical to assessing the opportunities graduates of their programs are presented with, and for identifying local workforce needs. For example, one institution indicated they were using regional data to show which job classifications are in increasing demand:
Regional employment trends, according to EMSI, indicate increasing demand for truck drivers, nurses, EMTs, and medical/dental assistants, as well as automotive technicians and welders, machinists, and other manufacturing professionals.
Colleges have strengthened partnerships to enhance existing training opportunities and create new training programs that meet the needs of their community workforce. By aligning programs and training with the needs expressed by employers, colleges say that they have experienced greater engagement among employers who have a desire to not only hire, but more importantly play a role in developing their workforce.
And colleges were able to secure funding from a federal and state grants to build workforce capacity. One college noted that the grant funding enabled them to “expand the College’s welding lab, acquire a new semi for truck driver training, and build storage for fire trucks and ambulances used in the EMT, Paramedic, and Fire Science programs.”
Another college described opening a Workforce Solutions Center that works with local industry partners to provide quality training and nurtures the skills employers currently need and will need for jobs of the future. The mission of the center will be to:
Become the region’s go-to resource for quality training and assessment programs focused on CTE programs in the areas of automotive, business, engineering, IT, logistics and transportation management, robotics, and health care … With these efforts and in collaboration with industry, [the Workforce Solutions Center] will provide training and promote promising careers that foster social and economic mobility through a focus on dismantling barriers to student access and success, ensuring high-quality academics, developing strategic community partnerships, and ensuring institutional excellence.
ATD’s Partnership Supports
Colleges were clear about the importance of their relationships with Achieving the Dream, describing ATD as a “catalyst” that provides resources and insight. One institution described ATD as supporting both growth and sustainability, and another described ATD as invaluable for its ability to provide guidance and leadership that inspires action on equitable mobility, which echoed what many institutions said about the organization:
Our involvement in the ATD Network was invaluable during recent disruptions to higher education, and the strength of ATD’s resources provided a roadmap for navigating challenges in a way that continued to prioritize equity, social and economic mobility of our students and graduates, and community vibrancy. ATD’s exceptional leadership, especially in the area of racial equity, affirmed and continues to inspire [our college’s] ongoing commitment to its students and community.
ATD’s work this past year has been especially useful in the areas of professional development, data usage, equity, and student-centered strategic planning:
ATD continues to be a positive driving force and a strategic change agent in our college’s culture that is strategically shifting to a student-focused learning environment. The holistic resources afforded to us wrap a blanket of support around our students, promoting a thriving earth lodge village model that promotes degree completion and career attainment. The ATD experience — helping our students achieve, one dream at a time. Thank you, ATD!
The following chart indicates the many ways in which colleges have worked with ATD to increase student success and outcomes through better use of data, targeting resources, strengthening alignment and integration of initiatives, closing equity gaps and addressing key aspects of campus culture, and other means.
Colleges identified coaching as the top benefit of ATD. Coaches were praised for their ability to “begin and support dialogue,” “create constructive accountability,” “build capacity for change,” “navigate resistance to change,” “facilitate college-wide collaboration,” “inspire transformation,” and for their overall support of the institutions.
As we have enjoyed over the past four years of our ATD membership, we are so grateful for the wisdom, guidance, and direction of our ATD coaches. Their support and encouragement of our work has uplifted our efforts and kept us on track. In particular, as we gained advancement with our redesigned developmental mathematics and English courses and their acknowledgement that our efforts were well-designed and potentially beneficial for our students, especially supported by data, has been most instructive. This element of ATD membership continues to be a huge asset to our work.
Institutions relayed a variety of benefits from attending and participating in ATD events. Institutions indicated they observed increased awareness and interest in addressing student success among staff and/or faculty after such events. Some institutions even indicated that this increased awareness impacted overall planning and strategy on their campuses in particular because of their participation in the following events:
- Professional Learning Institute
- Building Capacity for Change: Strengthening Teaching and Learning Through High Impact Practices
- Racial Equity Leadership Academy convening/experience.
For instance, one institution said that the “Professional Learning Institute heightened the focus on teaching and learning and resulted in a short-term and long-range professional learning plan,” which they later embedded in their overall strategic plan.
Two Network colleges made a point to discuss the usefulness of ATD’s events over time.
Our engagement with ATD and its Network institutions has always been positive and productive, but this year it has been invaluable. The conversations we’ve engaged in through participation in the various professional learning opportunities, from webinars to conferences, has provided us with a renewed impetus to engage in and scale our student success efforts. The increased commitment from our faculty and staff is tangible and has served to rekindle enthusiasm for this critical work.
Many responding institutions mentioned the importance of ATD’s Institutional Capacity Assessment Tool (ICAT) as a tool that creates awareness within the institution and promotes organizational learning. Colleges noted that the awareness gained from the ICAT helped the redesign of related policies and practices, guided or influenced their strategic planning process, and pushed them to better understand and work to address issues of equity on their campuses.
The pandemic and the economic and social impacts left in its wake are structural and continue to change and present colleges with new obstacles. However, even in these challenging times, ATD Network colleges are striving to, as our vision statement says, “become profoundly accessible hubs of learning, credentialing, and economic mobility that eliminate inequities in educational and workforce outcomes and bridge the gap between students and the local community.”
To achieve that vision, colleges must transform in ways that will serve students and the community at a time when higher education is being challenged to provide a more powerful value proposition to better serve a population that doesn’t take on faith the importance of higher education for personal success. At the same time, we must continue to move forward to reshape the culture of institutions, leading the charge for more equitable teaching and learning and more holistic student supports to achieve the outcomes we’ve been working for. This will require leadership that doesn’t just push big agendas but focuses on the small details that signal what our institutions stand for and who we can be for all of our students.
In reviewing the annual reflections, it was gratifying to see colleges working to make the big-picture shifts and get the small details right. We recognize in these reflections how institutions are making strides in responding to our current challenges while at the same time working to meet the future needs of the students and communities we serve.
Your reflections also reveal the careful attention to detail in establishing new efforts to move the needle across the spectrum of what institutions do to strengthen access, momentum, and mobility. Achieving the Dream will continue to share information about what is working to achieve new metrics that will help colleges transform what campuses can be — to better serve students and to achieve new and challenging goals for equitable mobility.