Student Success: A Team Effort

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Our Member Exclusive report Tackling the Retention Challenge: Defining and Delivering a Unique Student Experience emphasizes the importance of achieving a broad alignment of academic and student support services, rather than trusting to isolated, one-off retention initiatives. Yet there are often organizational and cultural barriers that keep efforts within student affairs and academic affairs separated and siloed.

This week, we asked James Cook, co-editor (with Christopher Lewis) of the book Student and Academic Affairs Collaboration: The Divine Comity (NASPA, 2007) and past vice president of student services at Laramie County Community College, to identify some of the most difficult and pervasive barriers to effective partnerships across these divisions. Cook also suggests some tips for breaking down those barriers.

What Gets in the Way

Cook notes five barriers that represent the most significant — and difficult to address — obstacles to effective coordination of academic and student support services:

  • Organizational structure — these functions typically report to separate vice presidents
  • Residual antipathy between some student services professionals and some faculty (there are still faculty who view student services professionals as “the party people” who hold pizza events for students; there are still some student services professionals who stereotype faculty, seeing them as too narrowly focused on their own research, or believe faculty do not recognize that learning happens outside the classroom as well as in it)
  • Different vocabulary for describing student success, and different expectations about measuring student success
  • Differences in training and perspective (student services professionals are trained to develop the student as a whole person, faculty to develop students within a specific discipline)
  • Misconceptions about what qualifies as meaningful “collaboration”
“Two divisions may get along reasonably well and have representation on some of the same committees. That alone does not represent the more intentional partnership that’s needed to have a meaningful impact on student success.”
Jim Cook

To improve student success through truly partnered efforts across divisions, Cook recommends a series of steps that an institution’s leaders need to take:

  • Establish a shared, institution-wide definition of student success, and identify goals and measures
  • Develop cross-division working relationships (both formal and informal ones) and a shared commitment to the institution’s specific student success goals
  • Ensure that hiring and training practices support the institution’s commitment to student success and cross-division partnership

Where to Start: A Shared Definition of Student Success

Retention efforts are at risk of foundering in an environment in which the varied sets of professionals who interact regularly with students have differing definitions of what student success entails and differing vocabularies for defining and assessing what has an impact on student success and persistence. Arriving at a shared definition is a crucial step.

Cook stresses that it’s important that an institution give due weight both to outputs (such as GPA, graduation rates, and responses to student satisfaction surveys) and outcomes (such as problem-solving and reasoning skills, critical thinking, and the ability to locate, synthesize, and analyze information). Define how you will know that a student has succeeded, and what measures of student success the entire institution needs to regard as most critical.

Developing a Shared Commitment

We asked Cook about the role of division leaders in cultivating partnerships. Cook sums up the responsibility of the vice president or associate vice president in either division in three terms:

  • Make your commitment known: On a regular basis, communicate shared goals for student success and the importance of partnering to achieve them
  • Create opportunities: Actively look for opportunities for staff in both divisions to work together
  • Model the desired behavior: A leader should invite members of the other division to meetings or to lunch, and should communicate the need for partnership not only through words or memos but through allocating his or her time and energy

If student services professionals and faculty are to partner effectively across divisions, then division leaders need to encourage and incentivize both intentional, planned collaboration (including student services staff into certain faculty activities, and vice versa) and the development of more informal working relationships.

“The informal groups that spontaneously form within an organization tend to be more cultural influential and faster purveyors of information. You need to encourage a culture in which faculty and staff interact frequently, stop by one another’s offices, and share information and ideas.”
Jim Cook

To encourage this level of collegiality across divisions, Cook suggests:

  • Offer interactive events and social events between divisions — “give the two divisions more exposure to each other”
  • Encourage team teaching
  • Encourage integration of courses into the residence halls (as collaboratively planned effort)

Hiring and Training Practices

Efforts to build cross-division commitment to student success initiatives will falter if these efforts are not an integral part of training and orientation for new faculty and staff.

“Too often, we do a poor job of orientation. Here’s your benefits, here’s some basic information about the college. It’s mostly about paperwork. We could be using that opportunity to orient new faculty and staff to what it means to be a member of University X, what we stand for, what beliefs and values we share as an organization, how we define student success at our institution. We could give examples of excellence in supporting student success. We could clarify expectations for service to the institution. We could walk them through instructive scenarios and invite them to problem-solve solutions.”
Jim Cook

Rather than rush the acculturation process, one way to approach faculty/staff orientation is to design it as a series of sessions or workshops occurring over a period of several weeks.

Cook also suggests that institutional leaders need to ensure that job descriptions are aligned with the institution’s level of investment in campus-wide student success initiatives. “This needs to be an intentional part of the hiring process,” Cook notes. “You can spend a lot of energy trying to reset expectations among faculty and staff who have been with the institution for 10 or 20 years. It’s more effective to bring in faculty and staff who, from the start, share a passion for working together to create a holistic educational experience for the student.”