Student Success 2.0

Tuesday, January 16, 2024 - How do you engage learners in the post-pandemic age? Hosts Jeff Selingo and Michael Horn are joined by Carrie Bartek, from Wake Technical Community College, and Randi Harris, from Portland State University, to ask some important questions: What has changed for students since the pandemic? And what needs to change moving forward to ensure students’ success? They consider the evolving landscape of higher education and the importance of addressing both the immediate and long-term needs of students to ensure their success in this new educational paradigm. The episode is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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How do you engage learners in the post-pandemic age? Hosts Jeff Selingo and Michael Horn are joined by Carrie Bartek, from Wake Technical Community College, and Randi Harris, from Portland State University, to ask some important questions: What has changed for students since the pandemic? And what needs to change moving forward to ensure students’ success? They consider the evolving landscape of higher education and the importance of addressing both the immediate and long-term needs of students to ensure their success in this new educational paradigm. The episode is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Key Moments

(0:00) - Intro
(4:18) - College enrollment decline and re-enrollment during COVID-19
(6:07) - Student success strategies during COVID-19 pandemic
(15:22) - Transforming higher education to meet students' changing needs
(18:47) - College enrollment trends and dual enrollment programs
(23:12) - Innovating and improving student success in higher education


Randi Harris:

One of the things that we see is just students not engaging with us, even when offering help until the end of class. And then all of a sudden they open up with all these big things that are happening in their life. And so what we're seeing is just not asking questions, not necessarily talking in class or necessarily engaging with one another. It's really interesting. So in teaching a hybrid course, I'll watch robust conversation happen in a discussion forum, but then when we're together, it's quiet.

Jeff Selingo:

That was Randi Harris at Portland State University. But it's also a familiar refrain, we're hearing from faculty administrators on campuses of all kinds and sizes right now. How do you engage learners in this post pandemic age?

Michael Horn:

And so today we're joined by two leaders of the student success movement. They'll talk with us about what's changed in students since the pandemic and what needs to change on campuses going forward to ensure student success on this episode of Future U..

Speaker 4:

This episode is brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation working to eliminate race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success through innovation data and information, policy and institutional transformation.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo. So what Randi at Portland State said at the top, Michael, really reminded me of a post on that site, formerly known as Twitter. There was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin, Sami Schalk, and the post went viral with 88,000 likes and nearly 10,000 reposts. In which she said that, "This has been the worst semester in terms of students' ability to get work in on time. I've never seen anything like it." And it was really amazing because the responses from faculty everywhere were like, "Yes, we know."

Michael Horn:

And then Jeff, you combine that with the recent report, of course, from the National Student Clearinghouse, which found that the share of students who earn a college credential within six years of enrolling, get this, it's stalled at the same rate for a third straight year. About 62% of students who started college in 2017 have since earned a degree or certificate, is what that means.

Jeff Selingo:

And as the Clearinghouse noted, students aren't just taking longer to complete college, they're just leaving. Of the nearly two and a half million students who started college in 2017, nearly one third left without a credential.

Michael Horn:

Now, we've also noted on the show a few times that enrollment is also down among first year students. So with fewer students at the top of the funnel, for a college, it's really that much more important for them to hold on to the students who are enrolled if they can.

Jeff Selingo:

Michael and it's not like student success hasn't been a thing in higher ed. The pressure has been on colleges to better engage students, retain them and graduate them for more than a decade, decade plus in terms of thinking about this as a movement. But it seems that many of the student success efforts from last decade are kind of showing their age. That they were perhaps designed for a different era of students, and especially now as students who came through middle school and high school during the pandemic are arriving on campuses.

And also the value of higher ed is being questioned by students of all generations that there is a need to rethink how colleges approach student success. And so today to discuss what are the problems higher ed now needs to solve with students and what does perhaps what we might call student success 2.0, what does that look like? We're going to be talking with Randi Harris, who you already heard from. She's the director of the Transfer and Returning Student Resource Center at Portland State University in Oregon.

And also with us is Carrie Bartek, who is Executive Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Research at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina.

Michael Horn:

Randi and Carrie, welcome to Future U..

Randi Harris:

So glad to be here.

Carrie Bartek:

It's wonderful to be here.

Jeff Selingo:

So I want to jump right in here, Randi, because during COVID, higher ed lost more than 1.3 million students in enrollment and there was hope that many would return after the pandemic, but they clearly haven't. So can you give us a sense of what happened at each of your institutions during the pandemic in terms of enrollment and why and who enrolled and who didn't, who left and who returned if they did? And why or why not?

Randi Harris:

We definitely have seen an enrollment decline across both our first time, first year students and our transfer students. But I would say a significant decrease in our transfer students. A lot of that was because roughly 60% of our degree seeking undergrads at Portland State are actually transfer students. And so when enrollment declined at the community colleges, we're now seeing that sort of cascading effect of enrollment decline. I think many of our students when we've talked to them, have left or pause their education if they weren't local, if they weren't from Portland.

We saw those students pause their education during the pandemic. We're starting to see them come back, re-enrolling students, particularly our first year students, enrollment is increasing at a great pace. Our transfer students is slower to increase, but we are starting to see more students enrolling, particularly as community college enrollment is increasing. And I think the other thing that we've heard from students is we saw students who it was their first year when the pandemic hit particularly, they just didn't have experience in college.

So it was really challenging and so they left and then paused. Students who were initially starting at our institution when the pandemic hit, took time off but then didn't go anywhere.

Carrie Bartek:

When you look at who is coming back and who did not come back, we are seeing a great increase in our duly enrolled high school students. Our college aged 18 to 24-year-old students, but our 25 to 44-year-old students are not. And our female enrollment has declined. And some of the factors that may be unique to where we are, we're in Wake County. We are experiencing a tremendous amount of growth and a very robust labor market and return to the labor market for community colleges.

Our enrollment is very much linked to the health of the labor market. So when the labor market's strong, people go back to work and sometimes they don't enroll in school.

Michael Horn:

Fascinating. So let's rewind before the pandemic. How would you both describe your efforts to support student success back then? What was working, what wasn't and why behind those?

Carrie Bartek:

Well, back in 2015, we made a strategic investment in digital learning. It was part of our quality enhancement plan for our accreditation. We just decided that's what we needed to do. That's where the learning gaps were the greatest. And so we invested in faculty professional development as well as student development and how are you successful in online courses. And so we had already implemented that in 2015 so that by the time COVID hit, all of our faculty were certified in online learning.

It was just getting our support services online, which we were able to do very quickly because we had already gone through some of the instructional professional development that we needed to do it. So that was a success as far as being able to retain students and get them through their courses when the pandemic first hit.

Randi Harris:

So at Portland State University prior to the pandemic, one of our big focuses was using human-centered design to really build the best student experience. So we were focusing on the experience of students and how we could improve access to learning and services in the best way. And so we used human-centered design to problem pose with our students, our faculty and our staff. And then co-created solutions and really focused on a complete redesign of our academic and career advising system.

As well as self-service models for students to find answers to questions, navigate the institution and do that in real time via digital tools. As well as increasing flexible degree options. So students who weren't fully online or fully in person, but ways they could have a flexible degree, a hybrid experience in that way. And having more coordinated systems on the backend for student services. So our registrar's office, financial services, advising, ways in which we could coordinate on the backend so students would have a seamless experience.

Jeff Selingo:

What did you learn during the pandemic about your student success efforts that have stuck and what are you finding in some of those early results?

Randi Harris:

It sounds simple, but meeting students where they are, we had to... The proactive outreach to our students had to be exponentially grown in terms of they weren't reaching out to us for help. So we reached out to them, what do you need? How can we support you? And we did it in the moment of, do we need to send you a wifi hotspot? Do you need a laptop? How can we get that to you? And I think what stuck is, again, finding different ways to reach out.

So we engage the use of a chatbot now to work with students, so it texts them and then they can tell us what they need and then we follow up, which is really great. We now have a team of folks called our progression team who does outreach to students who are likely to have holds or aren't registered or doing things so we can identify what they need, get them connected to a service, and then help them move forward on their degree. And I think that's been really helpful.

Carrie Bartek:

So what we did is now we developed care teams for advisors, for students, and they are made up of teams of people. When you can't do one-on-one, you have to figure out a way to network. You have to figure out a way to do a team approach to care of students. So we have now advisors, success coaches and support people on a team by 13 meta-majors. That was part of our strategic plan. And now every student has a care team and every student knows their advisor and the care teams reach out to the students.

That was a change that we made during COVID-19, and it's based on this idea that when you can't do the high touch one-on-one, if you can do on a team what you can't do one-on-one. So that was a big takeaway for us of what worked as far as keeping students retained.

Jeff Selingo:

So I'm really curious, Randi and Carrie, about something that I saw recently on Twitter from a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin who noted that the fall semester was one of the toughest that she ever had as a faculty member. And there was so much agreement by faculty members everywhere to that statement, mainly because students weren't handing in things, they weren't showing up to classes.

They had kind of unreasonable expectations about what the classroom would be like and there was a lot of sense that this is kind of the long tail of COVID. And just kind of interested in your take on that.

Randi Harris:

One of the things that we see is just students not engaging with us even when offering help until the end of class, and then all of a sudden they open up with all these big things that are happening in their life. So what we're seeing is just not asking questions, not necessarily talking in class or necessarily engaging with one another. It's really interesting. So in teaching a hybrid course, I'll watch robust conversation happen in a discussion forum, but then when we're together, it's quiet and it's not like that everywhere.

But I think there are students who had a significant time of their life was in online learning in high school or even in college to start, and now they're trying to get back together. I've heard someone coin the term the great awkward, and I feel that and how to relate even with their instructors and with each other. And they're trying to do that again and learn those skills while also navigating working mental health challenges, all those things.

Michael Horn:

That's so interesting. Let's level up a little bit and look more broadly. As you know at the recent National Student Clearinghouse Research Center numbers on completion. As a nation, we seem to be stuck right now as the Clearinghouse notes students are just... They're taking longer. They're not completing at all, adding to the already 39 million Americans who have some college credit, but no degree.

Obviously the reasons for this are many. They're complex, they're multifaceted. But from your vantage point, what do you think is happening here?

Carrie Bartek:

I think people are looking at what value they're getting. Students and families are thinking about the cost and value of a college degree. They're thinking about the return on their investment and trying to make more strategic decisions about debt and what they'll do with their degrees when they leave. I think that fundamentally is a conversation happening in our country. It's also a conversation that we're having here.

Randi Harris:

I would absolutely agree with what Carrie said around the value of higher education in relationship to the cost. So when we talk to students who are struggling or thinking about taking time off, they'll list a whole variety of reasons, but financial is always a part of it. So it is that investment and then what am I seeing? And particularly for many of our students who've been historically underserved, there is no wealth parity when it comes to the value of a college degree.

And so what does it mean? And people are challenging that, and I think it's really important that we face that head on and think how we can undo these inequitable systems and create higher education that works for all students. And so I do feel hopeful and that things are moving in the right direction. And I think it's related to a lot of what we've talked about is we are finally... We've been faced with we have to do things different and we're starting to think about our students differently and engaging with them differently.

And I think it is truly making a difference, and I am hopeful that we'll see more college completion rates. But students know, they see the cost, they see the likelihood of finishing, and they need to see that finish line and how they're going to get there and know that they have the support to do that so that they can actually see that return on investment in the degree.

Michael Horn:

It makes a lot of sense what both of you are saying. As I reflect on it seems both there's a societal shift, Carrie, that you're arguing in terms of how people even think of college in the first place. And then Randi, to your point, if you can really show them success, it sort of breeds on itself and there's ways, if you really meet the student first, to drive those numbers. I guess I'm just curious for both of you, if we think nationally for a moment as a prescription.

What kind of transformation do we need on a larger scale to move this needle on retention and completion? And maybe a large part of it is the steps that you all have been taking and describing, but I'm also curious as part of this rethinking how we structure college and how we think of success and how we credit that success to meet students who maybe, to your point, Carrie, they come into the station, they jump off to a great point and maybe they come back to the station a few years later.

And that's a broader restructuring than maybe just some steps in the student success equation. I'd love both of your thoughts.

Carrie Bartek:

I mean, we have to remember that we were asking for transformation for a long time. We were working on it for a long time. We got it with COVID-19. COVID-19 was a disruptive transformation. We had to pivot very, very quickly and we transformed. We transformed our structures, our processes, our attitudes about students changed. So we know it can happen, and some of those changes are lasting.

Randi Harris:

Our students also want to make a difference, and they want to know that they're making a difference. And I think that's something that we can add to the conversation around value. And what I think is really important, particularly right now in our society, is the development of critical thinking and the ability to engage with others and move really important work forward in solving some of the problems that exist today, but that are also coming.

So asking that question, what does the future need from us, right? And how are we developing skills around that and experiences to support students to feel like they truly are making a difference, while supporting their career goals and all of that.

Michael Horn:

Randi, Carrie, terrific set of insights. Thank you so much for coming on Future U. and sharing them with us.

Carrie Bartek:

Thank you so much for having me.

Randi Harris:

Thank you for the opportunity.

Michael Horn:

You bet. And we'll be right back. This episode is being brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Today's college students are more than just students. They're workers, parents and caregivers and neighbors. And colleges and universities need to change to meet their changing needs. Learn more about the foundation's efforts to transform institutions to be more student centered at

Welcome back to Future U., off that conversation with Randi and Carrie about what student success 2.0 might look like. And Jeff, I'd love to know just as when any sector is struggling, it's important to spend time properly diagnosing the problem before you jump into solutions. So Jeff, what is going on with student success? Why has the needle been essentially stuck for three years now?

Jeff Selingo:

Michael, let's start with the pandemic. I know people are tired of talking about it, and that's probably one of the reasons why we just moved on when things started to "return to normal." And I think that's part of the problem. Students kind of needed a break and they didn't get one. We just seemed to jump right back into college like it was 2019 all over again. And so we have this combination of learning loss and social loss.

And students are ending up in college from the way I'm talking to faculty and administrators and seeing students and they're just not ready for it. It's like we probably needed a giant gap year paid for by somebody, of course, for a lot of these students right after we started to go back to normal after the pandemic. Now I think that answers what's happening with those already in college who probably have left, or maybe they didn't even go in the first place when they graduated from high school in 2020 or 2021 or even 2022.

But I think what's also interesting is what Carrie told us is happening at Wake. And we're also hearing from other community colleges too, and that's what's driving enrollment is dual enrollment. In other words, it's high school students at community colleges, not traditional 25 to 44 year olds who as Carrie noted, are not coming back. And Michael, I'm really curious on what your take on this is because as Carrie said, well, it's because the economy is good in Wake County, North Carolina where they're located.

And that has long been the line that community colleges have used. That when the economy is good, our enrollment goes down, and when the economy is bad, our enrollment goes up, as people can't get a job and so they go back to school. But it seems now there is more of a resetting about who's going to college and when. And in some ways it seems that community colleges are essentially becoming outposts of something that's almost like early college for high school students through these dual enrollment programs.

Now, I want to note here, we're actually going to have an episode coming up on dual enrollment specifically. So I don't want to spend too much time on this, but I thought it was really interesting in what Carrie noted in that we're losing all these 25 to 44 year olds while gaining all these high school students.

Michael Horn:

Jeff. Well, first it'll be interesting to see if what Carrie talked about holds. Because as you know, the pattern of good economy, bad economy, down enrollment, up enrollment was broken during COVID. That's not what happened to community colleges when the economy tanked. Be really interesting if that's indeed what we're seeing the restoration of that pattern. But I think your other observation is right, it certainly seems like we're having a resetting of who goes to community college. Now, you and I, not only are we doing a future show in this topic, but we've also talked about this before in our show.

We've betrayed some of our own biases and concerns about it. But I think it seems undeniable, particularly when the economy is good, that it almost feels like we're undergoing this structural shift perhaps in the country whereby grades 11 and grades 12 are almost like the new grade 13, if you will. As in dual enrollment in community colleges become so pervasive in grades 11 and 12, which is definitely a trend that maybe we even should start talking about it as the new start of college.

And if that's the case, how do we think about all that when that enrollment is still taking place in our nation's high schools? And then I think what's exciting, Jeff, is we can ask some big questions. What else can we do with that time? For example, could more students take the community college classes but also pair that with internships and externships to gain working experience and knowledge about careers and build purpose? One of your favorite topics.

Could we pair that with the clubs and sports and other activities and rites of passage like prom and really still keep the core of the high school experience, but make it more interesting and exciting to students? No more senior year burnout. And then maybe that further on bundles high school and we actually see more students doing a, and I'm going to use this reference because we're speaking to people focused on higher ed, but sort of a Tim Tebow type move, hybrid homeschooling. That's a trend that is on the rise right now in K-12 education.

But I kind of wonder if rather than take the college courses taught by high school teachers as many of these dual enrollment programs are currently structured, maybe they take the online courses taught by the college faculty themselves. And anyway, we could stretch this a little bit further, but you get the idea. It seems like if we're intentional about using this shift to innovate more, we could create a lot more opportunities and knowledge for students in grades 11 and 12, but it's obviously going to have massive downstream implications for how we start thinking about measuring student success, Jeff.

And so my question back to you I think is, if we start to think about student success 2.0 and what it's comprised of, how do you think institutions need to start building a new student success playbook if they're going to have students coming in with a much more unbundled, varied set of experiences maybe from high school?

Jeff Selingo:

Well, Michael, I think it's interesting what you just said, to be intentional about using this shift to innovate more. And I don't think there's a lot of innovation that's intentional in a higher ed. Sometimes we just kind of back into it or it happens by accident. And I think the pandemic's a great example of that, where people did online education because they had no choice. But to answer your question about what does this playbook look like, I think there's a few things they should do.

First is allow for flexibility in how students access education and how services are delivered in college. I think that institutions must be much more accommodating and really retain a mix of digital or hybrid that they actually adopted during the pandemic. And some colleges and universities have just gone back to what they used to do. Take Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, for example, where students now can choose to attend in-person or virtual classes on any given day in about 10% of the college's courses.

Carrie also mentioned the care teams they developed, and it's similar to what Purdue did during the pandemic with its academic case manager program in which student success advisors assisted students who had to be quarantined because they had COVID. And the university is really using the same approach now going forward for students with chronical medical conditions, disabilities or in other circumstances where they just can't attend classes on a regular basis.

And data from that program suggested the quarantine students who use the service were more successful in terms of grades and staying enrolled in their courses compared to those who didn't participate. So I really like this idea of the care teams. Second, I think we need to build the structure and culture required to encourage students to connect with each other and faculty as well. So a lot of institutions, including places like the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

They've extended their orientation to essentially the entire year with programs around financial literacy and exams. And all these things are timed to coincide with those moments in the academic calendar because as you probably remember from your own freshmen orientation, they just throw everything at you before you even start. And then six weeks or eight weeks later when you actually need that information, you kind of forget about it. And so I like this idea of extending freshmen orientation.

On top of that Georgia State, which is really kind of ahead on so many fronts on student success. They operate this accelerator now during the summer for freshmen who dropped courses so then they could play catch up on the previous year. And then finally, I think that we really need to evaluate leaders for their commitment to putting students at the center of decisions. As our friend Bridget Burns says, "Who really gets fired if your student success numbers don't add up?"

And as she said, "No one really gets fired because at most institutions, there's no one person that's ultimately responsible for student success." And Michael, there's something else that goes beyond student success and that's value when we think about this. We've talked a lot about the ROI of the degree on the show, and we're going to be doing a lot more about it this spring. But one thing that Randi said caught me. She said, "Our students also want to make a difference."

And I'm wondering how much that plays into student success. I always say the two most important pieces for student success are belonging and purpose. I'm wondering how can colleges show prospective students that they can make a difference or is that just being too sentimental?

Michael Horn:

I don't know if I associate sentimental with you, Jeff, but it's a good question and I think she's onto something. And for brevity, I'll just say, if we're imagining this much more unbundled and flexible world, which we both outline now, then if you can connect students into more opportunities where they can take on real projects, real work in their community. It can be community-based organizations, it can be employers, whatever it looks like.

Then I think we could start to show students more directly how they can contribute to the broader world. And I think that has inherent value because it'll help students more clearly think about the question you just asked, which is what's my purpose? Where do I want to plug in and contribute? And I think that will speak to the two pillars of belonging and purpose and not in a sentimental way, but I think a very straightforward and practical one. I'd love your thoughts on this because it's such an area of passion for you.

Jeff Selingo:

Michael, when I started my career, all I thought about, and I think a lot of students thought about were of possibilities, and I think this current generation thinks way more about limitations and threats to what they want to do. And I think AI is a great example. How is it going to impact my choice of a career or a job? I think their degrees to them seem far more utilitarian than they did to me. It will allow them to do the one thing that they want to do.

My degree in so many ways really felt like the ticket to a music festival, where there might be 15 different stages and I can move around. My degree was that ticket, and I could do many different things. Of course, I ended up in journalism but I've done many different things since then including this great podcast, and I don't think I ever imagined that 20 plus years ago. But Michael, there's this one other question that I have about the data because it was noted in the Chronicle after that Clearinghouse data came out.

That completion rates and perception of higher ed can be kind of a chicken and egg thing, right? Students who aren't sure a degree is worth the investment are more likely to leave, and that's contributing to the stuck completion rates of course. And at the same time, higher ed's apparent inability to graduate more of its students helps fuel not only the students' perception, but also the public's perception about its value.

So in an era of limited resources, where do you as a university put those resources? Do you put them in recruitment, in student success, in changing perceptions? In many ways, it seems like a game of whack-a-mole, right? Because every time I put resources somewhere, the issues somewhere else just don't improve, which hurt where I just put my resources.

Michael Horn:

It's a great point Jeff. And I think historically colleges have put those resources at the top of the funnel because their incentives have been around enrollment, and so they just wanted to get more students into the funnel, if you will. But what you've just captured is the downward spiral that I think we're in right now, and in my mind that the first rule of getting out of holes is to stop digging them.

And to me, in an era focused on value and ROI and outcomes where policy may move in that direction as well, I think that means you just don't keep following the same old playbook and filling the top of the funnel. Instead, you fix the ROI, the value part of the equation. You show students and society that the education that you're offering is relevant. You show that the degree, and more importantly I would argue, the knowledge and the skills and the network that you get from it will result in something positive and tangible.

And if you build that sense of contribution, but also launch students to a place where they can act on it and do so at a cost that they can afford. I think students and families will stop asking some of the questions that they have been of is college really worth it? Now, that also implies, Jeff, I think getting out of some of the games of politics that we've talked about in past shows, and it really means focusing on the questions of cost and business model and value proposition.

And I don't mean tuition when I say those things. I mean the underlying spending that an institution does. If you get your cost structure in line and launch programs with lower underlying cost structures that actually result in value, I think you can start to answer these questions, stop digging the hole and become the place that's differentiated and other students want to start coming to.

Jeff Selingo:

Michael, I think it's so true, and I think it really does start about something you said earlier about really being intentional about innovating more, and that includes on all of these fronts. And it may include trying to figure out how to stretch your resources more so that you're not just focused in one particular area. Because it's really clear to me, judging from just the conversation that we had with Carrie and Randi today.

It's that we can't really go back to 2019 because the students and the issues they're facing just in the last four or five years have changed dramatically. And I think we're seeing that in our own kids as well, which means that this is not something, and we talked about this on the show before. This is not something that's just going to go away in a couple of years when the students who were in middle school or high school come through college. I think this is going to be something that is really generational and we're talking a decade plus.

So if we don't start being intentional about innovating more on student success now, it's going to be too late, especially when the demographic cliff comes later this decade. So we're going to wrap up there. Thank you again for all our listeners being with us today on this special episode of Future U. around student success. Thank you to the Gates Foundation for their sponsorship of this particular episode, and we will see you next time on Future U..

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