It Begins with Difficult Conversations: How Community College Leaders Can Support Faculty-led Student Success Efforts

October 30, 2019

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By Carrie B. Kisker

In a recent research brief for ACE, I argue that if community colleges want to make a substantial difference in student persistence and attainment—and to make the improvement sustainable over time—these efforts must be led by those on campus who have the most frequent contact with students: the faculty. The brief outlines one approach to supporting faculty-led student success efforts, which involves asking faculty to use data to identify specific challenges or barriers to success in their own departments or disciplines, and then design long-term solutions. This approach encourages faculty to take even more responsibility for the progress of their own students and creates multiple, sustainable, data-derived student success initiatives across campus.

Ultimately, these efforts should be a process of asking questions, analyzing institutional data to identify patterns and gaps in student persistence and attainment, drilling deeper by asking more targeted questions, implementing solutions, assessing progress, and so on. However, it all begins with difficult conversations. So where should community college leaders begin?

Consideration #1: Acknowledge faculty fears and create an environment of trust

To kick-start the process, college leaders might ask their department chairs to facilitate a session or series of sessions for faculty to discuss known and potential student success challenges and then identify research questions and analyses that they need to conducted (with the support of institutional researchers) to empirically explore these patterns. These conversations can take place in large brainstorming sessions, small groups, one-on-one dialogues with faculty members, or some combination. Most important in these discussions is that department chairs and other administrators begin with an honest assessment of their institutional culture to ensure that the environment supports collaborative, courageous conversations; in other words, that they create an environment of trust where faculty and others feel free to speak freely. (Acknowledging the huge amount of work that faculty already do to teach, mentor, and frequently, provide emotional support to students also helps to establish a culture of trust.)

Some faculty will likely find this process profoundly uncomfortable. It is easy to attribute persistence problems to external factors related to students’ lives, and certainly students who work full-time or have home or family responsibilities on top of their schooling face greater challenges in maintaining uninterrupted progress toward a degree or certificate. Less easy to point out to colleagues (or acknowledge yourself) are institutional factors that can lead to persistence problems and equity gaps. Yet these are the only variables that faculty have the power to change.

Discussing how a pedagogical approach might alienate certain groups of students; how the timing or location of courses may make it difficult for working students or those reliant on public transportation to get to campus; how the lack of opportunities for students of color to interact with professors or advisers who look like them may contribute to equity gaps; or how established unit limitation or waitlist policies may artificially constrict enrollment and slow student progress can generate a fair amount of fear. These fears—of hurting a colleague’s feelings, of discovering that you may be part of the problem, of facing political retaliation for advocating structural changes—are real and should be acknowledged. But in colleges where leaders have created a collaborative culture and a shared responsibility for student success, these important conversations can happen.

Conversations about student success at the departmental level may also elicit other more general faculty fears. For example, as often happens, new approaches to improving student success are likely to surface suspicions that all the work will fall on the roughly 30 percent of community college faculty who are employed full-time. They also might raise doubts that faculty voices will truly be heard and respected and lead to uncertainties (voiced and unvoiced) about how much to trust an administration that may not be there in two, three, or five years. These more universal fears must also be acknowledged at the outset, and it may be helpful to detail how the college plans to support, reward, and institutionalize this work over time (see Consideration #3).

Consideration #2: Reframe the work as an opportunity for faculty

The key to managing these difficult conversations—and precluding faculty fears from turning into defensiveness and inertia—is to reframe the work as an opportunity for faculty. Department chairs, in particular, can establish a collegial and productive culture by presenting this approach to student success as:

An opportunity for faculty to be at the forefront of planning and leading conversations about how to improve institutional effectiveness. As I argue in the research brief, faculty are already invested in student success. They don’t typically enter the professoriate just to teach—their purpose is to help students learn. Yet in previous decades, most student success initiatives have involved telling faculty what they must do differently. This new approach allows faculty to decide for themselves what strategies might work best in their own departments and disciplines, and then implement them, assessing and adjusting over time. In other words, this approach can be framed as “this is your chance to decide what is best—and implement it in a way that allows you to maintain control—before someone else makes that decision for you.”

An opportunity to talk about what the institutionnot just the faculty themselves—can do to improve student success. For example, your college might need to re-examine policies and long-established practices that can be barriers to continuous enrollment or progress toward a degree, provide professional development on social justice pedagogies, implement additional tutoring and advising options for students, and so forth.

An opportunity to have colleague-to-colleague conversations, across and within disciplines, about student success. As Sue Kater, a faculty member at Northern Arizona University pointed out, this is something that community college faculty are eager to do, yet these discussions rarely occur unless they are supported, financially and otherwise, through initiatives such as this.

An opportunity for faculty to highlight the work they are already doing to improve student success and to assess and showcase the outcomes of these programs.

An opportunity to mentor part-time faculty, share outside-of-class workloads, and create a more welcoming, collegial, and cooperative atmosphere within departments.

An opportunity for faculty to capitalize on their role as academic leaders and reframe shared governance as shared responsibility for student success. Faculty have long had authority over issues of curriculum and student learning, but this approach to improving student success allows them to take greater responsibility—and receive more credit—for the academic progress and outcomes of the students they see every day.

Consideration #3: Detail how you will support, reward, and institutionalize your faculty’s work

As I said at the outset, faculty-led student success efforts begin with difficult conversations about challenges and barriers to student persistence and attainment in each department or discipline. But these conversations will lead nowhere unless they are visibly supported and embraced by community college leaders, particularly presidents and provosts. My research brief offers several suggestions for how college leaders can do this, including ensuring a climate conducive to collaborative conversations, setting clear mandates for institutional researchers to collaborate with faculty; offering release time and research stipends for both full- and part-time faculty; integrating faculty-led student success efforts into existing “service” requirements so they become part of the faculty’s everyday responsibilities; creating forums for faculty to discuss what they have learned about student success barriers in their departments, as well as possible solutions; and publicizing findings and celebrating successes across campus and to outside communities.

Some of these suggestions can be implemented immediately (stipends and release time, for example); others will be phased in over time. College leaders would be wise to advertise, early and often, all of their plans to support the faculty’s work to improve student success. At the outset, some of the more initiative-weary professors may view these as empty promises, but as the institution develops a culture that supports and rewards faculty-led student success efforts at the departmental level, faculty mistrust will eventually give way to shared accomplishments and most importantly, improved outcomes and college experiences for all students.

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