John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Moving to Scale

October 22, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner
President

One of the most frequent common state of affairs that I see on my many campus visits these days is the under developed state of so called “High Impact Practices” (HIPS—see https://www.aacu.org/leap/hips ). I suspect my readers know what they are, all ten of them. They are not new at all; they are old wine in new bottles. And the new bottles are the increased credibility these undergraduate education initiatives have as being exemplars for student engagement, success, retention and more, thanks to my friend George Kuh’s extolling the virtues of these HIPS and the support they have received from AAC and U, the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Unfortunately, most of these are offered to a limited number of students and rarely to all students.  And hence we lament “if only we could bring them to scale.” I had never heard this phrase before some of my work was fortunate enough to receive support from foundations, beginning in 1999. Then I learned that foundation program officers and leaders were very, very interested, rightly so, in moving from “pilot” to “scale.”

So for example, even though we know have very substantial evidence that HIP’s like first-year seminars and learning communities, have demonstrable impact on retention, why haven’t they been brought to scale. For example, first-year seminars are required on only 50% of the campuses where they are offered, and that represents about 90% of the regionally accredited undergraduate degree granting institutions. And the first-year seminar is less likely to be offered in two-year colleges than in four-year institutions even though it could be argued that two-year institution students need such retention interventions more than their peers at baccalaureate institutions.

Two very important questions follow naturally:

1. So why haven’t we scaled up these interventions?

2. And how might we do so?

First, the why? I conjecture the following:

  • Not enough financial resources. Many institutions mount these efforts through grants like Title III. When the grant ends, so does support for the intervention. They don’t fund these initiatives on regular institutional recurring funds from tuition and/or state appropriated formula funding.
  • In an era of either no additional resources or reductions in resources, any scaling requires redistribution of existing resources—which means taking funds away from the programs of very powerful internal constituencies—particularly those with tenure who can vote no confidence on the administrators who cut their budgets.
  • Key resource allocators/decision makers don’t know enough yet about the value of such interventions and hence will not support moving to scale.
  • A disproportionate number of these initiatives may be run by women, non tenured, staff, Student Affairs, “Student Success” educators who do not have the power, status, to advance their agendas
  • On any given campus there may have been insufficient assessment done on the outcomes of these less than scaled interventions. With no compelling evidence of effectiveness it’s understandably hard to make the case for scaling.
  • Competing voices at the table. Some advocate for ramping up this intervention rather than that intervention. So we have competition and in-fighting for a shrinking pie.
  • Lack of a master plan, a comprehensive vision of what is needed to improve student success. I have personally been involved since 2003 with a self-study, planning process to help create such a vision, Foundations of Excellence ® (see http://www.jngi.org/foe-program/ ). But we have done this with “only” 264 institutions out of 4000+ in our country. And at those places we do frequently see the outcome of scaling up.
  • Lack of consensus about what really matters for new and transfer students for student success. Because institutions always find the money for what really matters, and if it hasn’t been decided that this really matters, then these initiatives cannot be brought to scale.
  • Many of the decision makes did not experience one of these HIP’s when they were a student and hence may not agree that these are essential elements of an effective undergraduate experience.

And I suspect there are other reasons too. But the above are certainly sufficient to prevent the badly needed scaling up of successful student success initiatives.

And now some suggestions for the how?

One mistake many places make is trying to do too many initiatives at once. I suggest more concentration, more focus. This is sometimes difficult to do because senior resource allocators want to love all their direct reports (children) equally. And so they water down the resources where all the units get something and nobody gets very much to do anything of real substance. Not smart. The most effective initiatives I have seen came about at places where senior decision makers decided to make some program or initiative and signature one and really invested in that to bring it to scale. So the senior leaders have to have priorities and the courage to announce them, drive them, fund them.

Thus, you need to make intentional choices and announce publicly your signature initiatives and then do what you said you were going to do. At my own university, our historic signature initiative was University 101. It has taken us 43 years of focus, emphasis, refinement, making the effort a high priority institutional commitment.

Ramp up assessment of your HIP’s and scale based on what you find.

Make sure you have the kinds of HIP leaders in place, whom their senior leaders and other members of the campus community will be willing to support. It’s very hard to scale any initiative that does not have highly respected leadership.

Demonstrate how a given HIP will also benefit other units whose leaders then will get behind the particular HIP. For example, when academic department chairs see the kind of value added they can derive from a first-year seminar which retains more students for their majors, they are more likely to support its scaling.

Much wiser to argue that ALL students will benefit from the initiative you want to scale than just a sub population, no matter how worthy, deserving, needy that sub population. Hey, this is post affirmative action America. There will never be enough resources for the neediest. So what you have to do is argue what is needed for ALL students—e.g. effective academic advising integrated with career planning.

Consider doing a pilot. Use the cream of faculty and staff to launch. Assess the results and disseminate those. Scale the innovation. Continue to assess and improve. This is what we did with University 101.

Don’t try to scale your HIP on your own. Attract partners who will bring more resources: people, money, and political capital. For example, you scale learning communities by offering them in residence halls (assuming you have them). This brings together the combined resources and efforts of faculty, academic and student affairs. Partnerships are a key to scaling.

Publish about your innovation. In the academy, publishing is the currency of the realm. When others outside your institution are reading about what you are doing, the internal credibility of your intervention will increase and be perceived as more deserving of scale.

Look at what your aspirational peer institutions are doing. If they are ramping up you should too. My wife, Betsy Barefoot, visited the world class  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last February for a focus on their High Impact Practices. She learned that Chapel Hill has the goal of every undergraduate student participating in at least one High Impact Practice per year.

Look at your actual peer institutions. If they are doing whatever you are espousing, this certainly justifies your place doing it.

Use the leverage of your regional accreditor’s required quality improvement/assessment processes as the means to achieve your end of scaling up your initiative. I have seen, for example, a significant number of institutions in the SACS region focus their QEP’s (Quality Enhancement Plans) on the first-year seminar. Once that HIP becomes the focus of reaffirmation of accreditation, then that initiative will have moved to the signature initiative level and will definitely be scaled up.

I am sure there are many other ways to scale up. I am encouraged to see many institutions finding the way. If they can, so can you.

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