John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Got A Plan for New Student Success?

John N. Gardner

Well, of course, we should assume any post secondary institution that wants to be more successful with its new—either first-time or transfer—students, would have a plan to accomplish this. But in my four decades plus experience, I find that very few institutions do. And, while most all institutions have a strategic plan, my work tells me that many are weak on the execution of such aspirational plans.

Foundations of Excellence

I am thinking about this because June 30 is my non-profit organization’s annual deadline for applications for a process we have been offering for 10 years, known as Foundations of Excellence® (FoE, for short). Very succinctly stated, FoE is a comprehensive, institution-wide, assessment, planning and action process to improve student success and retention. While I wish I could tell you that student success was the number one driver, it is really more selfishly from the institution’s perspective, an effort to improve student retention, which really means institutional retention. And that’s exactly what it does! That is FoE significantly improves retention if you do two very simple, but important things: 1) develop an aspirational plan for improvement; and 2) then execute that plan to a high degree.

A foundation of Excellence was made possible by grants from three foundations: The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Atlantic Philanthropies, and Lumina Foundation for Education.

From 2003-2005 we had 219 four-year institutions involved in a pilot and 88 community colleges involved in another pilot, to produce what we called “Founding Institutions.”

Since 2003 we have had 245 post secondary institutions go through the Foundations of Excellence process. Of this total, 136 have been four-year institutions and 109 community colleges. All but four of the cohorts have been from the continental US. But four institutions came from Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. What we had originally set out to do was to develop a process that would be applicable, effective, and work anywhere in the world where post secondary institutions wanted to be more effective with their students.

So what’s the secret sauce to go through a process like this to increase student retention? At the risk of oversimplification, the recipe includes:

  1. You have to have a set of aspirational standards of excellence. You can use ours, gratis. They are out there on our website.
  2. You have to create a task force to conduct a thorough assessment of the effectiveness of your first year.
  3. You should measure your institution’s current effectiveness against some standards of excellence for the first year or transfer student experience.  For each of the standards you need a set of questions to be asking yourselves in order to apply these standards to your unique institutional circumstances. Our process provides these and we call them “Performance Indicators.”
  4. You need to involve a substantial proportion of faculty to be engaged in this process if you want the outcomes to be institutionalized. In addition to faculty, you want to bring together academic administrators, student affairs professionals, IR and assessment experts, and students.
  5. Your process needs to be data driven whereby you produce recommended action items for institutional improvement based on the evidence you have marshaled about your current levels of performance.
  6. The process needs to result in an action plan.
  7. You then have to execute that plan to a high degree. 

The external assessment on Foundations of Excellence, very briefly, with respect to retention over the four-year period post participating in Foundations of Excellence, has found that:

  1. All institutions combined, including open admissions community colleges on one end of the continuum and selective four-year institutions on the other end, in the aggregate, regardless of degree of implementation of the FoE action plan, realize a 3% increase in retention over four years.
  2. But when we look at level of implementation as the discriminating variable we find that the “high” implementers, two and four-year institutions combined, realize an 8.2% increase in retention.
  3. The greatest gains have been realized in private four-year institutions with a 17.2% increase for high implementers.
  4. And even in open admissions community colleges the gains are as great as 3.5% for full-time students, and amazingly, 2% for the hardest population of all in which to increase retention, part-time students.

There is no way I can do justice to this work in a relatively short blog posting. But, if you want to learn more: consider participating in a one hour gratis webinar. Of course we also have a great deal of information on our website.

Over the next six weeks or so it is going to be very exciting to pull together our next national cohort of Foundations of Excellence institutions. Nothing I have done in 46 years has taught me more than FoE about what to do to improve student success. I am privileged to have this opportunity not only to be a life long learner in this field of student success and completion, but to be able to continue to work with my higher education peers to help our students.

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