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Student success lessons learned from 12 small colleges

February 11, 2020

Lindsay Schappell is an alumna of Taylor University in Indiana, a school with 1,866 undergraduate students, and previously worked with youth clients as a social worker. Now, Lindsay is a strategic leader with EAB’s Student Success Collaborative and works with institutions that enroll fewer than 3,000 undergraduate students. We sat down with Lindsay to discuss the lessons she’s learned from partnering with a dozen of small colleges and universities to improve their approaches to student success.

You attended a small undergraduate university. What drew you to Taylor University, and how does being an alumna of a small school impact your work with similar institutions?

Lindsay Schappell photo

Lindsay Schappell: One of the reasons I wanted to go to a small school was that I wanted a “picturesque” college experience like what you see in the movies, with personalized support throughout my journey. I love small schools—they feel like home to me, so working with small colleges and universities who join the Student Success Collaborative feels like coming home.

I’ve found that the desire to provide a picturesque and personalized student experience is a common theme across the schools I work with. The fact that students bring this expectation can pose a challenge for the schools we partner with because they are working with limited resources behind the scenes. As a student, I didn’t fully understand or appreciate how much work the faculty and staff put into ensuring my enjoyment and success.

Before joining EAB, you worked as a social worker for six years. How does that experience translate to your current role?

During my time as a social worker in New York City, I witnessed how—due to the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the social support and health system—school-aged clients had to discuss painful experiences over and over with different people, reliving and extending their trauma. With better processes in place to improve communication and collaboration between offices, we could have avoided needless pain for these students and sped up their access to support and essential resources.

I’ve heard similar anecdotes from student-facing staff at the schools I work with at EAB: due to inefficient processes and poor communication, students have found that the path to help can be long and confusing. I understand why people often focus on their own, siloed work and feel the need to stay in their lane. Small schools, however, tend to have fewer staff, and that generally means that people wear many hats and are involved in a wide variety of initiatives across campus. This enables them to bust silos and collaborate more effectively, as long as they have the technology and processes in place to support ongoing coordination.

What are some of the unique challenges that small institutions face when it comes to student success as compared to their larger peers?

As anyone working at a small school could tell you, they tend to have access to fewer financial and staff resources compared to larger schools. For example, at most small schools, faculty members serve as academic advisors. Because they thus have to juggle teaching, research, and advising responsibilities, engaging them in this key aspect of student success can be difficult.

“For most faculty, advising is a relatively small component of what they do in terms of time. It doesn’t play a role in their promotion and tenure, so the institution itself is not saying to those faculty that [advising] is super important.”

-Nancy Biggo, Associate Provost for Administration at Samford University

To address this, I’ve worked with administrators to improve transparency around how they communicate with faculty regarding student success efforts. It’s essential to show faculty the actual data on how many students are impacted and retained thanks to initiatives like faculty-submitted progress reports.

At Samford University, which has about 3,000 students, 90% of the faculty members participated in progress reports thanks to intentional communication from leaders.

What makes small schools uniquely equipped in their efforts to foster student success, and what could other schools learn from this?

One of my favorite things about my small school partners is that the people who work on campus are scrappy—they’ll do whatever it takes to ensure their students succeed. Integrated into the identity of small schools is the understanding that sometimes you need to get creative to make things happen without the luxury of a bigger budget, more resources, or lengthy planning time. But staff and faculty at these smaller schools don’t necessarily see these differences as deficits. Without all the bureaucracy and hundreds of stakeholders, small schools can act with greater speed and decisiveness in implementing new initiatives.

Another huge selling point for small schools is their ability to deliver a highly personalized education, where students can forge a path uniquely suited to their own needs and goals. For many students, this is a big reason they choose to attend smaller schools.

I experienced this personal support first-hand as an undergraduate student. I didn’t start college planning to be a social worker; I started as a pre-med Biology major. When I was a freshman, I met with my biology advisor to discuss what courses I needed to set me up for medical school. During our appointment, I spoke at length about a lecture I’d attended by a Taylor alum who was building an orphanage in India. I was inspired by their work to improve global wellbeing. My advisor said, “I’d love for you to stay a biology major, but I don’t think that’s where you want to be. All you speak about is building relationships and helping people. Being a doctor can give you that to an extent, but have you ever taken any classes in social work?”

That conversation with my advisor taught me two things: one, I didn’t really want to be a doctor; and two, to truly help students find their best path to success, we need to understand what success means for them individually. By taking the time to hear me and read between the lines, my advisor ensured I found the path that truly fit my personal definition of success.

What advice would you give a potential small school partner as they consider implementing a technology like Navigate?

A major tech implementation can be intimidating, especially for a small school with limited resources. Being intentional right off the bat and starting with a clear plan is essential. I have three main pieces of advice that have helped many of my small school partners through their implementations.

  1. Create very specific and clear goals from the beginning, both in terms of how you want to use the technology and how you want it to impact students. Make sure you clearly share your expectations with all stakeholders: How quickly are you rolling out different functionalities? How many units should be using the platform by the end of the year? Goals don’t just have to be retention and graduation rates—consider setting goals for shorter term metrics too, like the number of students that you’d like to have at least one advising appointment in the coming semester. This will help ensure you stay on track to hit longer term goals.

  2. Include as many relevant people as possible from the start. Involve a diverse group of stakeholders in your leadership team to help secure buy-in from all departments from the start. Faculty are more likely to be engaged if they have an advocate with a voice on your team.

  3. Finally, develop a system for sharing your successes. Once you launch Navigate and the initial momentum has slowed down, keep the excitement going by sharing updates and shout-outs via a newsletter. Celebrate advisors who hit goals and encourage them to share their secrets to success with peers. As anyone at a small school could tell you, the campus is a community, and success is a shared experience.

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