Social Mobility Behind the Scenes

How Changes in Hiring, Training and Assessment Can Develop Individual Potential

When university leaders come together to talk about changing lives, the inspirational stories pour out. Just about everyone attending InsideTrack’s third annual Student Success Symposium shared a tale or two about the students who stood out — the ones who faced unimaginable obstacles to soar to unprecedented heights.

Any good educator knows that students are the stars of these stories. They did the hard work and they deserve the accolades. More importantly, they deserve the fulfilling lives and livelihoods that come from realizing their potential.

But as conversations continued over the three-day event, and Symposium attendees dug deeper into the stories, two things became apparent. First, the student overcoming obstacles is not the exception; every student experiences struggles and stumbles, and increasingly, the “typical” student is one who juggles multiple commitments and responsibilities along with coursework.

And second, it will take ongoing changes and advances “behind the scenes” to ensure that every student struggle becomes a success story — and that the successes no longer stand out.

How buzz becomes action

Initiatives supporting student success are a core element of many institutions’ strategic plans, noted Gates Bryant of Tyton Partners during a panel on the trends affecting higher ed strategy. But, noted Seth Reynolds of EY-Parthenon during the same session, there is often a “high ratio of buzz relative to action” — meaning that everyone talks big about student success, but somehow the plans get stalled.

For strategies and initiatives to lead to success, noted Pete Wheelan, InsideTrack CEO, they have to be accompanied by organizational leadership, teamwork and change — the critical elements of success that don’t easily fall into place.

For Fernando Sanchez-Arias, leadership and teamwork go hand-in-hand. In his keynote address, Sanchez-Arias shared his experience of leading learning and training as Home Depot’s Chief People Officer. Leaders need to develop other leaders, he urged, and every leader needs to be trained to support the development of their staff.

It shouldn’t just be a worthy goal; it should be a requirement of the job. In his vision, Sanchez-Arias said, leaders would be evaluated on how well they develop others.

Measuring what matters

The topic of evaluation was taken up by other speakers too, including Ellen Neufeldt of Old Dominion University, who weighed in during a panel on social mobility. The prestige of universities is too often measured by inputs, she said — who is accepted into a university, and what their accomplishments are before they enter. But, she said, higher ed should focus on the outputs — what are the outcomes and how do students develop during their time in school?

One factor that makes institutional change particularly difficult, explained fellow panelist Toyia Younger of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, is that it is difficult for institutions to track outcomes. Nevertheless, she noted, we have to be aware of where students come from, and we have to lead the transformation in creating a culture that helps all students succeed.

Even when outcomes are measured, noted former Governor of North Carolina Bev Perdue during the same panel, they don’t encompass everything that matters. Students’ experience during their time at the institution needs to be counted, such as their interactions and engagement with institutional resources.

“Hire to the mission”

When asked what gets in the way of change, many attendees returned to the issue of training. Institutional leaders are not educated in a way that prepares them to make needed changes. University presidents may not know enough about change management, for example, or student affairs professionals may not be trained to support the diverse students of today.

Neufeldt suggested that the solutions to some of these challenges can be found by “hiring to the mission” and finding the people who are willing to change to more effectively meet students where they are.

As institutions strive to become more “student-ready” — rather than expecting students to be college-ready — the behind-the-scenes work of training and assessment will propel more and more students into the spotlight.

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