The process of transformation is necessarily iterative, and the Frontier Set sites are continually exploring opportunities and implementing new approaches, learning and tweaking along the way. To undertake this work, institutions must be self-aware and have processes in place to assess progress and tackle problems—data play a critical role in this. They must also be agile, with empowered faculty and staff who are excited about and deeply engaged with the work—as well as ready to question assumptions and innovate. Speed is important, too: Even though transforming an institution can seem like steering an ocean liner, implementing new ideas on a smaller scale can effect change rapidly and build toward a greater shift. Dedication to continual improvement can drive a cycle of learning, building, and testing, which results in better approaches to serving students.
The network supports this cycle of iteration for the sites, as noted by Claflin University:
New Jersey City University also noted that the Frontier Set has enabled them to move quickly and systematically, particularly in developmental math education. They’ve found this work requires deep discussion about pedagogical challenges and changes, but even with those constraints, they’re able to progress toward increased student success.
Florida International University sees transforming institutions as those that truly understand why they need to change, and are hungry to do so. Those institutions learn more from their failures than their successes, and are always ready to adapt. CUNY Staten Island described it this way: “A transforming institution is a continuously evolving and highly integrated entity with the ability to self-assess and respond in a timely way to changing needs.”
This agile self-assessment requires buy-in from across campus to continually explore the challenging aspects of their work, looking for places to improve. That might entail turning to other institutions for ideas—a method encouraged and enabled by the Frontier Set—or developing unique fixes for their particular students or context.
Fayetteville State noted that “A transforming institution establishes a culture of continuous improvement that is evident in the willingness of leaders, faculty, and staff to look critically at all aspects of the university, learn from other institutions with similar goals, experiment with new techniques and tools, assess progress, and adjust strategies based on outcomes.”
Northern Arizona University also sees a transforming institution as “one that has a vision of a future state that is different from the current state, and is progressing from the current to future condition. This requires intentionality and coordination efforts across the university toward student-success goals. A transforming institution continually grapples with important questions to continue informing, guiding, and refining its transformation.”
Momentum for this work is maintained in part by leadership. The University of Central Florida wrote that efforts are sustained at their campus because leadership continues to a promote of innovation, organizational learning, and student success.
In addition to culture, key performance indicators are critical to continual improvement. It’s important to track the success of efforts to see what works and what doesn’t, in order to better understand what to do next. This cycle of examination is shared across sites in the Frontier Set, helping all members go further, faster. By looking at others’ attempts, sites can glean what might work for them, then more effectively implement new approaches. Northeast Wisconsin Technical College noted that “the opportunity to see and hear about innovative projects inspires us to continuously rethink our current state and strive for a higher level of student-success support.”
As well as connecting with the education community, it’s important for sites to remain aware of the ever-changing student community—both the students themselves and their unique contexts.
Jackson State University’s leadership is intentional in developing and implementing a holistic process for providing support to students from a wide range of backgrounds, from recruitment through graduation. They maintain the success of their first-generation, economically challenged students through intensive advising and mentoring at all levels.
Johnson C. Smith University, in its strategic plan, resolved to change its business model in order to survive in a quickly changing and highly competitive market in which students have a multitude of options for earning degrees. This required a shift of focus, broadening from recent high school graduates to students who might be excluded from the typical college pipeline, such as nontraditional adult students, Dreamers, foster youth, and academic underperformers. This broad strategic plan aims to modify the student experience to improve retention and graduation rates for all kinds of students, as well as enhance civic engagement.
Jackson State and Johnson C. Smith are HBCUs. Together, the HBCU Frontier Set cohort has defined institutional transformation as “a process that focuses on developing culturally relevant, student-centered, and collegial environments that evolve through data-informed decision-making to meet the needs of students.” The HBCU Intermediary echoes this sentiment by stating that HBCUs continue to meet the needs of low-income, first-generation students by creating a campus climate that fosters success within diverse learning environments to ensure every student has a chance to succeed.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro also takes a close look at their students to ensure the institution is creating the best environment for them to succeed. They update their predicative analytics model annually, based on characteristics of the incoming first-year class and new data elements collected through faculty advice. As a result of their focus on a holistic approach, the institution was identified by the Education Trust as a national leader in closing the black and Hispanic achievement gaps in 2010, 2012 and 2013—and more recently, the U.S. Department of Education highlighted UNCG as an institution making “significant strides in increasing graduation rates among Pell Grant-eligible students.”
Wake Technical Community College similarly wrote about how important it is to continually adapt to the changing environment in which their students live, taking into consideration their backgrounds, their current circumstances, and their post-graduation outcomes. Students’ needs are always shifting; institutions need to match that. One way Wake Tech has done this is with EPIC (e-Learning Preparedness Initiative across the College), a quality enhancement plan that aims to prepare students for taking online courses and prepare faculty for teaching them. They also opened a campus in a research park in order to be more connected and responsive to local businesses’ needs. Both these efforts demonstrate the wide-ranging ways institutions can evolve to better fit and serve their students—an ongoing process described succinctly by Guilford Technical College: “A transforming institution is one that understands that the reform work is not something it is doing, but rather something it is becoming.”
Change is always challenging, but it has become our norm.
We are conditioned to transformation for the sake of our students’ future.