While the work of the Frontier Set is all about student success, it’s easy to lose sight of the actual student in the midst of planning, strategizing, managing staff, and interacting with policy and larger issues. Part of what makes the Frontier Set sites so distinct is that they are steadfast in their focus on the students, striving to see them as individuals and basing every decision on their needs. They frame their efforts around equitable student success rather than institutional success, and continually underscore this driver of their efforts. This shared goal contributes to better student outcomes as well as a more deeply engaged campus overall.
Fayetteville State University, for example, has found that a student-centered mission, shared wholeheartedly by both leadership and faculty, is critical:
A transforming institution has leaders, faculty, and staff who affirm timely degree completion by its students and lifelong personal and professional success by its graduates as the ultimate goals of all they do.
This shared vision of institutional purpose is articulated clearly by leaders; embraced by faculty and staff; and infused in policies, procedures, personnel decisions, and assessment methods.
At Arizona State University, they’ve found it useful to continually underscore their charter. ASU focuses on the fact that as a comprehensive public research university, they aren’t measured by whom they exclude, but rather by whom they include, and how they enable success. This perspective includes a fundamental responsibility to the health of the community the university serves, with students at the heart of that community.
Lorain County Community College pointed out that the foundation of their vision is the belief that all students can and will achieve success. Confidence in students lays the groundwork for interventions and lasting change. In the past, many institutions have assumed the stance of requiring students to be college-ready, but sites like Florida International University have found that position no longer acceptable.
“We must constantly strive to be student-ready,” wrote FIU, noting that along with that shift, it needs to be made clear that doing so is not equivalent to coddling students or watering down degrees. The ability to be student-ready comes from sitewide focus and effort to meet students where they are. As such, FIU provides a number of services and electronic tools—such as My_eAdvisor Student Dashboard, College Life Coaches, and learning assistants—to respond to student needs in real time and help students enhance their academic experience and proactively track their progress.
The Tennessee Board of Regents has achieved this shift to student-centeredness through an ambitious combination of “goal-setting, use of research, data analytics, planning, collaboration, execution, evaluation and continuous quality improvement, all centered on student success.”
Likewise, the College of Staten Island is committed to fostering success for all students at all levels. They are working collectively to create a positive college experience by prioritizing strong student engagement, both inside and outside the classroom, and assisting students with developing a “growth mindset.”
But it’s not just observing students from afar. Sites also find it essential to continually source student insights and opinions—beyond the data, one-on-one conversations, surveys, and stories help shed light on students’ needs and help sites better support them.
This close understanding of the student helps Frontier Set sites both foster a real culture of caring and ignite action. Portland State University noted that at the heart of their work are both the students and a material commitment from leadership to support open innovation. This approach originated with the 2013 Provost’s Challenge, in which the university leveraged $3 million in one-time funding to support 24 faculty- and staff-initiated projects that use technology in innovative ways to deliver high-quality, affordable education. More than 160 proposals were submitted by 1,000 faculty, staff, and students, ranging from online academic advising to degree-completion coaching, online general education pathways, and reduction of textbook costs. All projects were supported through a detailed project management approach, and deployed crowdsourcing and design-thinking approaches to co-identify problems and solutions—all with student voices, feedback, and perspectives at the center of the work.
The Tennessee Board of Regents has also seen this equity-focused work spur innovation: “A transformational perspective on student success and an ethical obligation to that success has spawned a culture of innovation, exploration, and investment in encouraging enterprises.”
This focus can also help sites coalesce their efforts. New Jersey City University coordinated and prioritized several fragmented initiatives under the general umbrella of “Student Success,” including adapting their centralized advisement model and increasing the number of professional advisors from six to 20, while supporting faculty members’ focus on mentoring and career-readiness.
Sam Houston State University similarly has focused its student-success efforts around advising, dramatically revamping their advising system. Their Student Advising and Mentoring Center (SAM Center) was designed 15 years ago to be a centralized, one-stop advising service for a campus of 12,000 undergraduates. Initially, its innovative design and high level of service won the SAM Center several national awards from NACADA and NAAA. But because of high enrollment growth since its founding (enrollment is now over 21,000), the SAM Center gradually modified its design to a more decentralized model, scattering advisors among departments and colleges. Communication became difficult, mistakes were regularly made, and the quality of service provided by the SAM Center no longer warranted national recognition.
However, with the support of the Frontier Set, including a visit to Northern Arizona University to learn about their model, Sam Houston was able to begin a redesign of the Center to better accommodate the growing enrollment while at the same time providing a comprehensive academic and advising experience to students far beyond simply choosing courses each semester. Once the redesign is complete next year, the new SAM Center will exclusively use professional advisors (as opposed to part-time or volunteer faculty advisors) to present a comprehensive advising curriculum to students, giving students the means to make informed decisions regarding their education.
Big changes like that require broad buy-in. A decade ago at Sinclair Community College, President Steven Johnson established that buy-in, stating that student success and completion are everyone's job. Since then, over 1,400 faculty and staff members have participated in professional development activities, work teams, or focus groups, all seeking to improve student outcomes. Similar all-hands, boots-on-the-ground approaches have helped many Frontier Set sites drive transformation.
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley commented that transformation necessarily involves the entire campus, requiring everyone to refocus on students and their success. Northern Arizona University defines that success as the “interdependent and intertwined combination of academic achievement, engagement, persistence, and personal growth that results in degree attainment.”
Keeping this central is important across the Frontier Set. Indian River State College approaches all decisions with a “student-first lens,” which not only improves outcomes but also provides stability and consistency in focus for faculty, staff, and administration. It’s all about both daily operations and campus culture, noted Delaware State University: “Student success continues to be our top priority, and is consistently communicated to all segments of the university community.”
Claflin University defined student success as “persistence toward graduation, receipt of prestigious fellowships and scholarships, admission into competitive graduate and professional schools, and recruitment by major companies and agencies.” They also include reduced student debt as a critical component.
All the Frontier Set sites feel the urgency of improving student outcomes and, most importantly, doing it in a way that promotes equity across student demographic groups. Santa Fe College asks the difficult question, “How many are we leaving behind?” Though Santa Fe is a high-performing college, with retention and success rates among the best of any two-year school in the United States, their success rate of 70 percent still doesn’t feel good enough. Like Santa Fe, other Frontier Set sites are asking those difficult questions and committing campuswide to making a difference.
This work requires an unrelenting focus on students and their needs—plus, and perhaps more critically, genuine concern for student outcomes and the courage to try new approaches. That central thread and purpose has helped Frontier Set sites take significant strides toward meaningful transformation.