If you ask ten higher education leaders what they consider to be the most important part of their institution’s mission, you might get ten different responses. Ideally, though, the answers would revolve around the success of the students. Perhaps above anything else, institutions always need to be “student-ready” – a concept that can take on a variety of different meanings.
Our latest fiscal resiliency podcast features a candid discussion about student readiness and resilience with Iowa Wesleyan University (IWU) President, Christine Plunkett. After joining our podcast earlier this year to discuss the relationship between academics, athletics and student success, President Plunkett recently joined Higher Ed Advisor podcast hosts Dave Capitano and Christine Smith to explore student success from several additional angles.
President Plunkett opened by noting how colleges and universities are typically focused on bringing in “college-ready students” – high-achieving students, generally, who often are backed by significant financial resources. But at IWU, they are putting the responsibility on themselves to ensure that their institution is “student-ready” – not the other way around. Particularly because IWU features many first-generation and low-income students, President Plunkett believes that the obligation to reach readiness belongs to the institution, not the incoming students. The university enrolls students from various backgrounds and educates its staff on the personal and academic challenges impacting their students’ success, including offering resources and training for how IWU can best prepare and position itself to serve the needs of their diverse student body.
As an example, she mentioned one student and his family assumed that tuition gets paid following graduation and did not realize he had to pay tuition for each term. This situation demonstrates the type of staff, education and professional development that IWU is prioritizing to help students and families understand and embrace very real challenges that their student face from freshman year through graduation. The Baker Tilly team commends the proactive step of educating staff to be empathetic and applauds this institution’s ability to empower staff to find unique solutions that meet each student “where they are” to eliminate barriers to degree completion. The change management approaches to achieve this kind of transformation are critical and should not be underestimated.
When asked to define student success, President Plunkett indicated it is not about graduating with a 4.0 GPA and getting a high-paying job. It’s about success on a variety of levels – “having meaningful lives and careers,” as the university’s mission statement says. IWU aims to prepare students for success as learners and earners, but also as quality citizens, key members of their community and as happy, fulfilled individuals.
While some higher education leaders dislike the term “student success” because of its ambiguity, she believes that the ambiguity is actually what makes the term appropriate.
“I would argue that the ambiguity is on purpose,” President Plunkett said, “because student success is something different for every student. Success has so many different definitions that I would argue that’s an intentional ambiguity.”
The institution is further enacting change and enhancing student outcomes through its Student Success Center, which in recent years has grown from two employees to eight. The team includes four student success coaches, who reach out to every new student to discuss course enrollment, financial aid and other important steps to beginning a successful college career. Beyond that, the center offers a peer tutoring program, writing support and resources to empower students to serve as global citizens during and after their undergraduate education.
IWU has already seen improved student engagement since launching the Student Success Center. Although the Student Success Center’s commitment to students is about more than grades, the university has experienced the highest midterm grades in the last six years, which President Plunkett attributes to the center’s work.
Another key tool contributing to student success at IWU is collecting data and getting feedback – from every subset of students: first-generation, low-income, student-athletes, etc. By examining the data and talking directly with students (both those who are currently enrolled and those who are leaving the university), IWU has continued to tailor its academic offerings, support services, campus culture (and, in many ways, its expectations) to meet each student’s specific needs and continue to serve as a student-ready institution.
“(It’s invaluable) for our faculty and staff to hear what it’s like to have food insecurity, to not have a consistent roof over your head, what it’s like in some cases to have a dysfunctional family who doesn’t support your education and you’re doing it on your own,” President Plunkett explained, noting that these conversations with students help university leaders understand why, in some cases, even paying $25 a month is a challenge for students, and how crucial it is for IWU’s staff to be flexible and mindful.
The institution is making strides to help students combat these hardships, including starting a food pantry and ensuring the Student Success Center offers resources beyond academic assistance.
While student readiness is the highest priority at IWU, the institution’s full commitment to meeting the individual needs of hundreds of students comes at a steep cost. But, as President Plunkett reminds our listeners, “it’s always less expensive to keep a student than to bring a new student in.” Baker Tilly’s higher education specialists have analyzed and confirmed that the potential long-term fiscal impact of retaining a student is greater than that of recruiting one.
As a university that has had challenges with student retention in the past, IWU acknowledges now, more than ever, the importance of getting in front of student-related issues. Understanding the needs of the students and proactively taking steps to ensure their success is not a cost, but rather an investment in the students (and ultimately the institution as a whole).
IWU also has benefited financially in recent years from an innovative alliance with Southeastern Community College (SCC). Together, the institutions formed a separate not-for-profit called the Southeast Iowa Higher Education Alliance. The benefits of the partnership include the sharing of staff, services and revenue, as well as increased community connection and collaborations related to economic development. Plus, the institutions have created academic pathways for the SCC students to earn their bachelor’s degrees at IWU. The alliance has been advantageous for the institutions, the community and, most importantly, the students. A win-win-win.
For more information about readying your institution to enhance student success and fiscal resiliency, or to learn how Baker Tilly higher education specialists can help, contact our team.