Turning professional development into positive results
What happens when a community college decides to go all-in and fully support professional development for staff members with the goal of better student outcomes? Success with a capital S.
Providing professional development for different campus teams — each with different roles and functions — can make a major impact on student success. Sounds great. But change on this scale requires more than a simple sign-off.
“In order for change to happen, all levels need to be involved,” said Kristin Gurrola, InsideTrack Operations Client Manager.
“Everyone has to be aligned on the same page, with clearly defined outcomes.”
“It’s also important for staff members to understand that even if you’re not a front-line advisor, you’re still part of the success,” added Hayley Kimble, InsideTrack Coaching Operations. “It’s not just the design of the program, it’s the support of the people.”
Three community colleges, three approaches
During the NASPA Community College Institute in March, Kristin and Hayley explored how professional development for staff leads to better outcomes for students. At one point in the session, Hayley asked attendees a simple question: “Have you ever been asked to implement a change without having the proper training and time allotted to do so?” Heads nodded across the room.
“There’s often a disjointed approach to student support,” she said. “The way admissions describes a good student support experience isn’t necessarily the same way financial aid or student services or faculty members would describe it. There needs to be a shared language across departments.” That’s where professional development can really make a positive difference.
Managing the people side of change
With more than 7,000 students in 50+ majors each semester, Wallace State Community College in Alabama was looking for ways to increase retention, as well as overall graduation rates — no small task. So how did they go about making professional development a priority across campus?
For one, the change had strong executive team sponsors, immediately communicating the initiative’s importance. This same team created a thoughtful process that would intentionally take several years, making a long-term commitment to staff development an integral part of the program. In order to get across-the-board buy-in, staff members were made aware of the change up front — with the rationale behind the change made clear. Working together, everyone agreed the change needed to be practiced, reinforced, monitored and adapted as necessary.
After one year of coaching, student retention in targeted programs was up 17.3 percentage points. After five years of coaching, graduation rates increased 14 percentage points — from 24 percent to 38 percent. And now the program is in place to support upwards of 1,200 incoming freshmen each year.
Meaningful and outcome-driven change
The academic advising team at Austin Community College in Texas wanted to create a program to help with retention and development support that would enhance the student experience for an undergrad enrollment of over 32,000 students. But how?
First, they clearly identified that they wanted to embed an evidence-based coaching methodology into the academic advising culture so that students would continue to receive an unparalleled level of care and service. Next, they made sure all team members knew and understood the objectives of both the program — and the outcomes — they were developing. This included being able to answer hard questions about implementing coaching training and development for 70+ academic advisors and staff — questions such as “what are you working toward,” “what are you asking of your people, “who will be affected,” and “how will their work need to change to accommodate this objective?”
With a developmental coaching model in place, student meetings about issues such as enrollment and transfer applications started branching off into other topics, creating a surprising impact on persistence and completion.
In the words of one advisor, “Before, it was easy to just say to a student ‘oh, you want to take that class next semester? OK, here you go! Have a good day!’ “With a developmental approach, the conversation became much more interactive. “Now we ask the questions that the students themselves may not have really thought about. Sometimes that will change the whole direction of what we planned to talk about. Many students have voiced their appreciation and told me ‘I’m so glad I came in here today.’”
According to Kristin, in order for change to happen, institutions need to have a well-developed plan. “But just as importantly, they need to support the staff in whatever their plan for change looks like. And depending on the goals and objectives, they need to be willing to expand their idea of what professional development is.”
Invest in your people
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in the Great Lakes area wanted to enhance the support given to its 6,500 undergrad students at every stage of their educational journey — beginning by investing in the school’s staff. But what would that process look like? And what were the desired outcomes?
To achieve the greatest impact, they decided to expand the definition and means of delivering professional development. They adopted a shared student support methodology, creating a “common language” for consistency. And to ensure sustainability throughout the life of the program, they began with the end in mind.
Next, they worked on identifying and locking down the outcomes they wanted to achieve. This included a positive impact on team dynamics, a strengthened connection to their institutional mission, and understanding the impact on institutional goals and priorities. With that, it was go time.
The college trained its entire student-facing team — from admissions to financial aid to faculty — in the same coaching-based methodology, making sure everyone was on the same page. According to the Dean of Student Development, the school always had a collaborative and well-respected team. “But what we didn’t have was consistency. We needed an opportunity to come together and rally around one effort.” Once the team was trained on shared methodology, they realized that working with students in the same way creates a more a more “seamless” experience for students and helps them make the most of all available support resources.
A different mindset
With professional development, outcomes may not always be measurable. But for many, it can be the little things that make the biggest difference. Hayley shared a story about how at one school’s financial aid office, when students called on the phone, staff members learned to begin the conversation by asking their name — before asking for their ID number. “They were empowered to acknowledge that this is a human being on the other end of the conversation. It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s not something schools routinely do.”
Transparency, she noted, was another area helped by professional development. “If a student calls your office with a specific question but also asks something about another department that you can’t answer, it’s OK to tell them ‘I can help you with your admissions question, then when we’re done here, I will have you talk to Melissa in financial aid.’”
By providing professional development for all key staff members, student success becomes everyone’s business.