For those of us serving at public open access institutions, a perennial challenge has been getting our students to the finish line. Many of our students come to college carrying the baggage of being first-generation, low-income, and from disadvantaged groups across our society. The need to work while attending college part-time is a further at-risk burden. Barriers thrown up because of COVID-19 have also increased the challenges students must confront. Semester-to-semester persistence and graduation seem beyond reach for many. According to the First Generation Foundation, 89 percent of these at-risk students fail to graduate within six years. So, how then are we supposed to overcome this trend? How do we turn the trajectory on its head?
A number of organizations across the U.S. have been partnering on initiatives dedicated to solving the persistence conundrum. For those of us working as administrators on the front lines, the number of possible solutions coming from multiple initiatives at times seems overwhelming. To sort and select from among these many solutions I have, for the sake of simplicity, come to think about the appropriate and manageable model of persistence and success as a three-legged stool approach—a stool that will both backstop our students and help move them forward. The three-legged stool begins with student college readiness placement upon admission. Like many colleges across the U.S., our institution relied upon standardized test scores as the primary indicator of college readiness. More recently, however, this placement method has given way to our participation as a Minnesota state pilot institution utilizing other measures to determine student college readiness. Primary among these has been high school GPA as an indicator, providing us with a holistic view of student performance over four years. For some students this may be overall performance in a high school equivalent General Education Degree program. Additionally, we rely upon a guided self-placement tool that helps students determine their personal college readiness in math, reading, composition, and English language skills. National research has demonstrated the success of these devices in being a more robust predictor of college readiness in lieu of standardized exams. Through these mechanisms, students are generally placed at a higher level of readiness than reliance on a standardized exam. Why is this important? Students placed at the appropriate readiness level have been shown to have a significantly higher level of year-to-year persistence.
For those students who are not fully college ready, we rely upon our second leg of the stool, typically referred to as “remedial” or “developmental education,” or what I prefer to describe as college readiness courses. A typical sequence of college readiness courses covers upwards of four semesters. Student disenchantment and drop-out rates during this period are embarrassingly high. To remedy these circumstances, we have been participating in the Minnesota State College Readiness Block Courses nitiative, course-sequencing model that facilitates student’s completion of all their necessary college readiness courses within one semester. For example, a typical reading and composition course sequence covering two semesters is combined into a single intensive one-semester block. Participating students are then ready to enroll in regular course offerings in their second semester.
The success of these college readiness block courses is facilitated through the third leg of our stool: co-instructors in the classroom and intensive student tutoring. The pace and demand of a block course is often beyond the capacity of any one instructor. During our first year of offering block courses – AY20/21 – our goal was to place co-instructors in all of our college readiness disciplines. Co-instructors in the classroom were funded in-part through a partnership grant with our regional Adult Basic Education (ABE) providers. During the pilot semesters of the program, we made several discoveries that caused us to make adjustments in our utilization of ABE co-instructors. First was the importance of having co-instructors actively embedded in the course sequence. Mandatory lab sessions built into the course curriculum where students worked directly with co-instructors is one example. Another example, although not as effective, was providing students with extra credit points for participating in co-instructor tutoring sessions outside the classroom.
Through this process of experimentation, we discovered that the level of assistance our students need varies by discipline. Math and English-language skills courses benefited greatly from co-instructor participation during every class meeting. In contrast, reading and composition have typically required weekly co-instructor assistance but not their participation at every class meeting. We used these insights to realign our processes. The Writing Center became our go-to partner for reading and composition college readiness block classes. To assure students took full advantage of the writing center, faculty either mandated participation as a graded component of the course, or they offered extra credit to students utilizing the writing center. A new concept we are introducing next semester is organizing group tutoring sessions linked to specific course sections. Students will always have the same tutor throughout the course.
We are now in our third semester of implementation of our three-legged stool. Classes have returned to a semi-pre-COVID format with on campus face-to-face courses being the norm. What we learn during this academic year may contribute to further modifications of our three-legged stool. Likewise, other student success initiatives under consideration will need to be accommodated as they are implemented. If we are successful the proof will be measurable through higher student persistence rates and graduation rates over time among our at-risk students.