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How Addressing Equity Gaps Helped Carthage Boost Overall Student Retention

Episode 176

December 12, 2023 33 minutes


EAB’s Tom Sugar hosts a conversation with Carthage College President John Swallow. The two look back over their three-year (and counting) collaboration on EAB’s Moon Shot for Equity to share lessons learned in eliminating equity gaps that are having an enormously positive impact on students from more privileged backgrounds as well.

They also offer advice to other institutions looking to apply proven strategies to improve graduation rates and close equity gaps despite potential pushback from those who may impede those efforts.



0:00:11.2 Intro: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. We’re excited to be joined today by the President of Carthage College, one of the first institutions to join the EAB-led Moon Shot for Equity, a project that was launched three years ago. EAB’s Tom Sugar joins President Swallow to examine the extraordinary progress Carthage has made in boosting student retention for all student cohorts by applying the lessons learned from helping student populations that have long been the most vulnerable and underserved. So give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:51.3 Tom Sugar: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. I’m Tom Sugar, Vice President for Partnerships, and I am super excited about our conversation today. We are focusing on the Moon Shot for Equity. And for those of you who’ve been following these podcasts over the last few years, you know that it’s an effort that I’ve been leading since 2020. And the reason I’m so excited about this is we have significant and substantial new results to share about the closure of equity gaps at one of our most significant and experienced partners, Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. That’s why I’m so delighted today to be joined by the President of Carthage College, John Swallow. Hello, John.

0:01:43.1 John Swallow: Hello, Tom. It’s really great to be with you and talk about student success.

0:01:46.7 TS: Thank you. Well, just to remind everyone what the Moon Shot is, we began this initiative, as I said, in 2020 with the goal of challenging institutions like Carthage and whole ecosystems, regional collaborations of institutions across the country, to adopt the goal of erasing equity gaps before the end of a decade, a 10-year timeframe, to do that through policy and practice, the utilization of technology, and a focused and trained leadership. Because what we’ve come to understand in this pivotal work is you have to have three things to be successful in erasing equity gaps. Uniquely committed leaders, like Carthage College has with John Swallow, but leaders who know how to lead change. And changed leadership is a learned skill. We’ll unpack that for you today. You have to deploy at scale and with fidelity all of the best practices and policies we’ve learned are essential for student success. We’ll talk about those today. And finally, you have to have technology and data insights to allow you to proactively assist these students who are most often left behind.

0:03:00.0 TS: Today’s story with Carthage College is a story that validates that theory. All these components are there in Carthage. All those components are in the Moon Shot for Equity. And I am so thrilled to say that we’ve got points on the board that proves that this works. So John, let’s start there. Actually, I don’t want to kill our lead here, but just for a moment, just for a moment, share with your fellow presidents and higher education leaders that kind of aha moment that made you decide that that theory of the case mattered, made sense to you, and you were ready to jump in, and then we’ll get right into the results.

0:03:41.1 JS: Sure. Well, I remember our conversations, Tom, back in 2020 and before that. And as you know, I was a skeptic, frankly, about a lot of this. I started my presidency here and did a regression on the academic and financial profile of our students, and did that against graduation rates. And I didn’t think we were underperforming with reference to other schools. And I do have an aversion to launching out on initiatives, and especially asking faculty and staff to do something where I can’t really see a roadmap to how we’re gonna get there. In my career, I’ve seen too many leaders do that. It always feels good in the moment to have some incredibly aspirational plan. And then within a year or two, everybody, they can tell, they don’t necessarily talk about it. It’s never going to happen. And I just can’t… I can’t do that. It’s just temperamental. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in taking on something really hard.

0:04:36.5 JS: I’m a mathematician, and part of what you do as a research mathematician is you have to make judgments about which hard problems you’re gonna work on. And they might take years. And you have to decide, do I have the tools or might I have the tools? And you really don’t want to pick one that you’re never gonna solve. So I come at it that way too.

0:04:53.8 TS: Love it.

0:04:54.8 JS: I’m happy to take on a hard problem, but I got to have some belief that I’m gonna get there. For me after all that skepticism, a really pivotal moment was a lecture by Tim Renick at UW Milwaukee. And he was anticipating lots of my objections, even as he spoke. It was a beautiful lecture. But he was able to show a trajectory, and it took over a decade. And yes, budgets were getting cut, not expanded. And yes, the financial profile was getting worse of students, not better. And so all the kind of excuses, you might say, “Well, I know why they got it.” I just left myself thinking they actually did it. And it clearly wasn’t easy. They had a theory of change. They tried lots of stuff. But it actually worked over time. And I thought, “Well, okay, if one institution can do it, then I guess it is possible.” It is possible. And so I’m happy to take on a hard problem and try to learn from this. But that was really the big moment…

0:05:52.3 TS: Right, right.

0:05:53.4 JS: Where he said that we collectively had imagined that equity gaps start at kindergarten, they expand over time. And so really there’s nothing for colleges and universities to do. And that that belief had held us back for years in improving the lives of students. And I just kind of fell out of my chair and thought, “Okay, game on, we can do this.”

0:06:15.1 TS: Yeah, that’s such an important point, John, and we’ll get to the data in a second here. But I think of all the things that you’ve shared with me about that story, that’s always the one that sticks in my mind: The notion that for so long in higher education, we’ve said, these students come to us so broken and so impossibly behind that nothing can be done. And of course, you made reference to Tim Renick, who famously is the famous leader at Georgia State that has now erased equity gaps year after year. And he showed you that simply wasn’t true. And in that moment, and I think also with the support of institutions around your area who also wanted to move forward, you said, “Let’s do it.” So let’s get to the lead. Let’s get to the punchline. Where are we today? What is the big news we want to share? What’s the data look like now that has convinced you that that big bet you placed three years ago has actually paid off?

0:07:12.2 JS: Oh, sure. And it is incredible. And sometimes I wake up and I still don’t necessarily believe all these numbers, but they are true. So our most recent fall-to-fall retention of first-year students came back to our all-time high of 82%. So we’re very excited about that. So already that’s a huge gain. But in terms of equity gap, the…

[overlapping conversation]

0:07:31.4 TS: So 82%, which is the highest reported ever for your institution, right?

0:07:37.2 JS: Yep. So we got there. But along the way, our Black retention rate fall-to-fall, first-year students, was the same as the overall student body. That is an enormous increase for us. Now, it had actually fallen through the pandemic. It was as low as 43%. I hate to even publicize that number, but from 43% to 82% is a huge increase. We’re incredibly proud of that.

0:08:04.0 TS: Incredible. Incredible. Now, it’s very, very important for us to make sure that folks understand that you didn’t get to essentially the erasure of equity gaps with regard to retention for African-American students, you didn’t get there by reducing the number of African-American students you serve by reducing the number of Pell students you serve, by reducing the number of first generation students you serve. You did, in fact, the opposite. So unpack that for me.

0:08:31.2 JS: Yes. So our clear direction here is that we want to enroll students who can succeed. And we are not trying to shape the class by race, by ethnicity, by family income. We do tailor our financial aid packages to try to make sure that we can get as many students as possible and the revenue to support them. But we’re not trying to shape it beyond that. And our region is diversifying. 75% of our students come from within 100 miles. And so we are all in on serving those students. And so none of this has to do with shaping the class. We bring in everyone we can that fits the criteria we have at the price that we offer. And then we try to do as well as we can by them.

0:09:16.1 TS: So make it a little bit clearer for me. Give me some sense of how those underserved aspects traditionally of your classes changed. As I understand, you actually have more African- American students now than you did three years ago. Is that correct?

0:09:35.1 JS: Sure. If you look a decade back, most of our underrepresented students had been Black, but not many; I think maybe 10% coming in, underrepresented at all. So this last first year class has 35%, students from underrepresented backgrounds, more Hispanic students than Black students, but the diversity increasing in all categories.

0:09:58.8 TS: Okay. Okay, okay. So traditionally, sadly, students in those categories have been more challenging to serve or had poorer outcomes. And so you added more of those students at the same time. You’ve erased the gaps, especially for African-American students at this stage, which is an extraordinary turnaround. I think it’s important that people understand who you are. So tell me about Carthage College. What’s your size, your location? I think it’s phenomenal that you already pointed out that most of your students come within 100 miles of your institution, much like regional college campuses all across this country. So help us understand a little bit more about Carthage.

0:10:40.4 JS: Sure. So we’re a primarily residential college of 2600 undergraduates and about 100 graduate students. Our curriculum is based in the liberal arts, but spreads across really all the professions: Business, social work, education, nursing, and recently engineering. But you’re right, we’re very regionally rooted. We do recruit across the country and internationally, but the fact is 75% come from within 100 miles, and I don’t see that changing. That’s what we’ve been good at. Those are the students we serve. Our diversity has been increasing along the way, again, because the region’s been diversifying along the way. And to say, if you were to think about who we compete with for recruitment, it’s lots and lots of schools: Big schools, small schools, private schools, many, many state schools. UW Milwaukee, UW Madison, UW Parkside, Northern Illinois. The days when parents knew they wanted to go to a private school first, for us, just seem over. They want to go locally or regionally, but they don’t start with what’s your institutional type and how are you funded. They want to know whether their students can have a good experience. That’s what’s motivating them. And so we do compete in a very wide market.

0:11:56.5 TS: Yeah, and I really do think that’s where the action is when it comes to the future of higher education in this country. We all know about the demographic shifts that are happening. We all know that our country is becoming more diverse, which I think is a spectacular thing. That is the story of America. That’s the strength of America. And that is a trend that will continue. And so when you are going to be serving more and more first generation students, more and more Hispanic students, more and more African-American students, more and more students who come to you needing financial assistance like the Pell Grant and your own financial services, they tend to be pretty regionally based. They tend to want to be close to home. Some of them balance work and school. Some of them live at home while they’re going to college.

0:12:49.2 TS: And so the action for college attainment in this country is in places like Carthage. It’s in places like UW Parkside just down the road. Regionally serving country institutions that are very mission driven, right? And I want to make sure our listeners, when they hear Carthage, they think of you more that way, a contributor in the regional conversation and not just some unique little bubble private school, et cetera, et cetera. So John, help me understand how you have more in common with those regional publics probably than most realize.

0:13:34.0 JS: Yes, sure. And that was one of the reasons to join the cohort model with the Moon Shot for Equity. If you look at the breakdown of our students, so financial academic profile, race, ethnicity, first-generation status, we’re not that different, if you look at proportions from many state institutions. Their proportions are probably higher in some than ours and so on, but the fact is we’re all serving these students, and there are many students of similar academic and financial profile across all of our institutions. And we all want to serve them well. And it is easy, frankly, for our faculty and staff and presidents at private institutions to go to conferences only at private institutions, and frankly, not learn a lot. Everybody has the same ideas. Everybody imagines that if you just control the student body, somehow you’re gonna make all these metrics move.

0:14:29.4 JS: But where are we gonna learn more? We’re probably gonna learn more from institutions that are working really hard to serve first generation students. And they’re not marginal at it. It’s not that they have 10 at a very well-endowed institution. No, they have hundreds. And so I thought, yes, we can learn a lot from regional state institutions because they are serving those students who are not that different from some of the students we’re serving.

0:14:52.0 TS: Yeah, absolutely. So our listeners know you’re a part of a now five-institution collaboration across the Milwaukee-Kenosha area, sort of southeastern Wisconsin. We have University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee in the heart of Milwaukee, of course, very mission-driven, urban-serving institution. Milwaukee Area Technical College, the big community college that serves primarily the Milwaukee urban area. UW Parkside, just down the road from you. You’re very close together in Kenosha. Gateway Community and Technical College, it’s also a community college serving the area. And then, of course, Carthage College. And you were the first. You were the first Moon Shot for Equity ecosystem. And so you’ve been at it for three years now. We just celebrated your third anniversary in October. And as I said, everyone is producing great results. We’ll have more to say about the other schools on other conversations. But Carthage is the first, the first in the country in the Moon Shot for Equity to really show the closure of gaps.

0:16:00.8 TS: When you think about the components, and in the case of Carthage, John, you actually also add the Navigate technology to it. So clearly, the committed leadership, working on the best practices and policies, and optimally utilizing data and technology have come together in the Carthage story. Make that a little bit more real for me and how that’s come about.

0:16:25.1 JS: Sure. Well, certainly we needed technology, and Navigate has been a big help. There’s simply no way to gain the capacity and ability internally to be able to run some reports, to try to target where the opportunity is, to see whether your interventions are working, to validate even best practices on your campus, if you can’t collect the data quickly, analyze it quickly, and then really put that in the hands of lots of faculty and staff so that they can run their own ideas. So without that, without some technology, and I think Navigate is particularly good, I don’t think there’s any way we really could have done this. Because then you’re just implementing ideas from others, and you can’t really tell whether the pieces of it are working.

0:17:07.0 TS: Yeah.

0:17:07.7 JS: But there are other aspects too. I really believe in this cohort model, first because the institutions were different. So we talked about that. But also because it lends a kind of natural accountability. Faculty and staff from these institutions are gonna get together. It’s very easy. We don’t have to fly anywhere. We meet at each other’s campuses. And everybody’s gonna want to show better numbers than they had the year before. It’s just natural. And so that’s an easy way to get people moving. Frankly, Carthage wasn’t sharing data before. Now we share data very openly, not only with our local partners.

0:17:42.4 JS: And also there was a part for the cohort that was important to me too. And this is coming from a small institution. It’s sometimes easy for our faculty and staff to say even if we move these equity gaps, which of course we want to do for our own students, but maybe it’s marginal, maybe it’s just 50 students. And does that really apply, or how much impact are we having? ‘Cause we’re asking them to do a lot. But the prospect that their ideas might be shared with someone else who has a school of 20,000 students, and then it moves the success rates for hundreds and maybe even thousands of students, that really motivates people. They’re like, “That’s great. I want to be a part of that.” And so it was another aspect of the cohort that was good for us.

0:18:26.0 TS: Right, right. These are fundamental change leadership concepts that we’re talking about: Big, audacious goals, a very clear and consistent level of support from leaders like yourself. You talk about the Moon Shot for Equity all the time. You have your board deeply engaged in it. People at Carthage know, this is who we are, this is what we’re a part of, this is what we’re trying to achieve. I know that you’ve been good, John, at celebrating quick wins along the way so people can feel a sense of momentum as you make progress. I also know that you’ve been disciplined in making sure that people know we ain’t there yet. Until we see it on graduation day, which will be a few years from now, we’ve got to keep our eyes focused on the long term goal. So enjoy the moment, but know that we have a lot of work to do. In fact, you actually saw some promising numbers last spring and said, “Now, wait a second. I want to confirm this with one more semester before we tell anybody about this, Tom,” which I thought was a wonderful act of discipline. So give me some sense of the journey internally for people as all those pieces were being pulled together and you’re using those good John Kotter change leadership techniques to keep people moving forward.

0:19:42.9 JS: So last year, we thought coming out of the pandemic, our rates were gonna go up ’cause they had fallen during the pandemic. And we were doing many new things. And of course, everybody wants to know the results of those new things. And it is frustrating sometimes. You have to wait a whole year to the beginning of the second year of a student’s career to see whether they’re still here and enrolled and doing well. And so we were looking for something to measure. And, well, we could measure first to second semester retention. Why not? And we have data on that going back. And we had lost students. There were equity gaps there, too. We hadn’t focused on it as much, but sure. And then in the middle last year, when we got to February, we had 94% first to second semester retention, which was, again, huge for us. But the equity gaps were essentially gone. And not just Black versus White or Hispanic, but first generation. It was kind of all over. And I just, I didn’t believe it. I thought, “Got to be there in the data. You’ve got to be kidding me.” So I asked my colleague, “Please, let’s run this again.” I actually asked for the spreadsheet of all first year students. I wanted to see it. And it was there.

0:20:53.8 JS: But then you’re right. We were, well, we don’t want to claim too much here because this happened once. It’s in the middle of the year. Maybe, honestly, this was the easier part, having students stay over Christmas at home and come back, and summer’s a harder time. And so let’s not get too excited. The problem is definitely not solved, but I’m gonna take all that momentum and excitement and say, “well, okay, so game on.” So if we got all of those folks back for the second semester, let’s work really hard and see as many as we can get for the fall. And then, yes, there were some gaps in the fall, no doubt, lots of things to work on, but a lot of it sustained. And that was a huge morale boost for faculty and staff.

0:21:35.4 TS: Yeah. You told me before that your board is like, “John, how did you do it? How did you do it? What was the thing? What was the thing?” And you’ve shared with me, “It’s all the things.” It’s all the things synergistically working with one another. Am I getting that right, John? Or what are you saying to your board these days? ‘Cause they must be thrilled.

0:21:53.9 JS: Well, they are thrilled, no doubt. And it’s been a journey there. I’ll say I’m really pleased to have a great working relationship, where I can take on some big strategic things knowing that if I choose to, ’cause they know my bandwidth is limited, they’re gonna say, “Well, great, but we’re gonna have to hold you accountable to that,” because you could have been doing other things. And so they’re all looking for the results too. And it is much easier, I’ll say, in lots of meetings, board meetings or others, to be able to say, “It really came down to one or two things. It’s really, really quite simple.” And everybody loves the kind of silver bullet idea. And there are some things that I think had a bigger impact than others. But I also believe it was just an enormous amount of efforts by different people, different projects, all coming together.

0:22:39.8 TS: Yeah.

0:22:40.1 JS: And I don’t want to do anything but attribute success to as many people as possible ’cause that’s really how it works.

0:22:48.1 TS: Yeah.

0:22:48.8 JS: And so I’ve had to explain that to the board. I can point to lots of initiatives. Maybe not all of them worked. Maybe some of them will continue to change. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances that made a few things better than others in a given year. But we’ll continue all of it, learn from all of it, and then hope to see the numbers increase over time.

0:23:09.6 TS: That’s the way we think about the Moon Shot: Fail fast, learn fast, fix it, and continue to innovate. I want to take us now to sort of the elephant in the room. There is a backdrop, a narrative in our country now that did not exist three years ago when we started this work. And it’s a challenge for all our presidents and leaders all across the country. So I think it’s important that we give voice to it here. I’m as surprised as lots of folks are about the declining attitudes around college going from our young people. Clearly, presidents I talk to all around the country, many of them are seeing declines in enrollment. There are some forces at work that give people pause. There are places where, sadly, there are direct assaults on work like this, especially anything that would be attributed with the word “equity.” And it’s important, I think, for our listeners to be mindful that equity is a measure of success because I believe you achieve more when you aim higher. You achieve more when you aim higher.

0:24:26.9 TS: Now, in most institutions that are working with the Moon Shot, all students are doing better. All students are doing better. But those who’ve been most harmed by the structures that held students back are accelerating the most. But White students, wealthy students, well-prepared students, they’re doing better too. That’s the story of Georgia State as well. But it also at the same time, the equity gaps are disappearing. Because when you aim higher, you achieve more for all students. And so John, Wisconsin is what they call a swing state, I suppose. I hear politics can be complicated at times. I know that there have been statewide dialogues about DEI and the like. Give me some guidance or share some guidance for your fellow presidents as they try to navigate these waters too. How do you make sure that people understand what we’re up to and what it’s about and how it benefits all students? And what advice would you give to your fellow presidents on how to navigate this moment and lead in places where leadership is still possible?

0:25:36.1 JS: Well, I start with a huge focus on outcomes. This is not particular programming that comes from a particular political persuasion, but what we’re about is outcomes. So outcomes in terms of retention and graduation, which means our students are succeeding and get a better value for what they’re paying us to do. And also outcomes in terms of finances. We’re here to serve students. If we serve more students and we serve them better and we’re able to pay more bills because of it, that is all good. And I’ll just say it’s… I challenge anyone to say, what’s wrong with that? And so sometimes I just start there.

0:26:18.5 JS: Now, just like you said, there can be a theory of change that there are barriers that are being taken back, obstacles being removed, and that underrepresented students tend to have more of those. So as you begin to remove them for all students, you should expect to see greater gains among underrepresented populations, even while all students are doing better, just as you said. I think some people believe that. Some people are not sure about it. But if the outcomes show it, they can believe it. So for some folks, you just have to wait until you have some outcomes to point to. And then probably with some evidence, they can say that’s good.

0:26:55.9 JS: I think where this can get challenging particularly is certainly in conversations about race. No doubt. And then the very idea that we may be doing some things differently for some students than others. And so that’s a careful conversation. We’re trying to support all students and recognize that students come from lots of backgrounds and need all sorts of different supports, even leaving race out of it, people from different backgrounds, first generation and otherwise. If you were to look at financial aid, for instance, if we have 800 entering students, essentially we have 800 different prices, net prices, based on a whole slew of things: Academic profile, financial profile, everything else. And so the idea of allocating our time differently to different students isn’t in itself a problem, but people want us to be very careful about how we do this when it gets close to race or ethnicity or something like that. And those are conversations we’ll have to have. But again, there are the conversations at the beginning of the project, and then there are conversations, which I’ll say are much better now when we have outcomes that we can all be proud of.

0:28:02.1 TS: Absolutely, absolutely. And I’m starting to pick up more signals from all across the country, from the business community especially, that are excited about the potential of having more highly educated students for their workforces that are demographically changing as well. And so I really do think if we give ourselves the opportunity to open our minds and see, this is a wonderful era where I suppose you could say the strange bedfellows come together, right? A unique moment when the self-interest of the business community, the academic community, the social justice community, they’re all the same. They’re all the same. All roads lead to this work for us to have healthy, vibrant, economically dynamic communities. And that’s certainly the story of Milwaukee. And so I think we have to continue to talk about it, be clear about it, what it is and what it isn’t, and make sure that people understand that this good work helps all students, not just those who’ve been most often left behind.

0:29:06.1 TS: John, I’m gonna give you the final word today, just sort of final parting thoughts. Again, congratulations on this tremendous success. I’m so proud of you and your entire team. You do have a wonderful group of people that you lead at Carthage. I’m looking forward to getting you on the road and giving you more opportunities to share the good news with others, because I really do want your brothers and sisters who lead regional publics to see the commonality with Carthage. And so we’ll stay tuned for that. But let me just give you the last word here. Any final parting thoughts you want to share with your fellow leaders as we celebrate your success and head into the new year?

0:29:49.4 JS: Well, thank you, Tom. I’ll say, this is just great and meaningful work to do. It’s hard work. There is a way to do it. And my main piece of advice would be, don’t go in halfway. If you go in halfway, you’re likely to have lots of disappointment. You probably won’t see the financial return on investment that a lot of people are gonna want to see. Students are gonna expect more and you’re not gonna be able to deliver. You can have worries among faculty and staff about how they’re allocating their time and whether it’s worth it. So it really does need to be all-in approach: Supporting, giving permission, helping people get out of each other’s way, celebrating every possible success you can. And then it’s just totally worth it, for all the reasons you said. But it’s not something to just dabble in. This is too important. And it frankly won’t work if you just dabble in it.

0:30:42.2 TS: Very good. An all-in proposition. To remind our listeners, please do go to Moon Shot for Equity. Just type it into your search engine. You’ll find it at the EAB website. You’ll see that 24 institutions from coast to coast are members of the Moon Shot for Equity. Some of them are organized in ecosystems like John’s around Milwaukee. Others are so-called vanguard institutions leading the way in their regions, hoping that others will follow as soon as possible, all of them producing great results. And we are certainly in the hunt to add to their ranks. When you unpack that, you realize there are literally hundreds of people and institutions large and small who are doing this work in the Moon Shot for Equity right now, organized around task forces relating to technology and best practices and policies. And there’s a place for you in this work today too.

0:31:35.9 TS: So my final word is, to all those out there leading institutions in these troubled times, if you are in a place where leadership is possible, you must lead. You must lead now. We need you in this moment to maintain this momentum not just for the good of your institution, but for the good of this country. John, thank you so much for your time today. It’s always a delight. Look forward to seeing you again soon.

0:32:04.0 JS: Thank you, Tom.


0:32:09.8 Outro: Thank you for listening. We’re taking a short holiday break, but we’ll be back with a fresh new episode the first week in January. Until then, stay warm, hug your loved ones, and we’ll see you in the new year.


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