Shared Practices: Scaling Success

Marjorie Malpiede / June 12, 2017

NASH applies a collective impact approach to student success

The National Association of System Heads (NASH) includes 46 public university systems in the United States, representing 5.6 million students. With this span and reach, NASH is well positioned to fulfill its mission to take higher education’s best practices to scale.
NASH was formed in 1979 as a loosely organized forum for system heads to converse with their peers about their corresponding work.

As representatives of public colleges and universities, consistent themes included: access and completion, post-graduate employment, and equity gaps for certain populations.

Increasingly, NASH has provided a more tangible service: the ability to break through the silos that exist among institutions by offering evidence-based and practice-tested solutions to common challenges.

“What NASH does is put best practices on the table, connect people with each other, and give them an opportunity to develop these relationships,” said Rebecca Martin, NASH’s Executive Director. “It’s up to them to take it back and make it work for their particular system”
In 2014, NASH launched a new student success initiative, Taking Student Success to Scale (TS3). Twenty-three NASH systems are now actively involved in this network.

NASH has produced almost a dozen webinars on a variety of strategies that have worked in certain locations and has held a number of convenings for administrators and faculty members to share ideas. Academic affairs is NASH’s primary focus area, and student success is its number one priority.

The current work is based on the collective impact approach and is focused on the metrics that track a student’s trajectory from orientation to degree completion. Through this approach, NASH looks at graduation rates as well as “persistence” rates, which include first or second year retention as well as persistence into third and fourth years and number of degrees awarded.

Martin says the collective impact approach leads to better and faster outcomes. It suggests that organizations that work together to focus on a common definition of success and a similar approach to achieving goals have a better chance of reaching them than individual organizations that work on parallel tracks.

NASH is testing this model with “Taking Student Success to Scale,” which is based on practices that have been demonstrated, through data, to improve student success, to close equity gaps, and to be scalable in at least one system.

These are:
Redesigning the math pathway
Using predictive analytics to track student progress and guide decision-making
Requiring high-impact practices for all students.

These interlocking initiatives are student-centered and focused on eliminating unnecessary barriers or incongruent components to completion as well as enhancing criteria for degree certification.

The first focus area, redesigning the math pathway, involves matching appropriate math skill attainment with different disciplines and helping students complete the credit-bearing math requirement as quickly in their college trajectory as possible.

Most colleges require a credit-bearing math course for graduation, and the data show that those who pass this in their first year are more likely to graduate.

But many students do not have the math skills coming out of high school to pass the course and are taking remedial classes for which they pay yet receive no credit.

NASH is working with schools on models that combine remedial and credit-bearing work into “wrap around” courses that can be completed in the first year.

Other strategies include introducing other types of math, such as quantitative reasoning or statistics, to replace the standard calculus requirements for students who enter the humanities or other non-STEM-related majors.

The second category in “Taking Student Success to Scale” is predictive analytics and guided pathways — using student data to guide course decision-making.

“We are now developing more and more information about how students are experiencing college,” said Martin. “What we’re trying to do is take the best of this information and help students understand their strengths and make sound choices about their coursework so they don’t waste time and money.”

This involves identifying a “meta major” — an area of interest that allows students to assemble their courses in a way that leads to their degree, even if they are not ready to declare their majors.

The third area of focus in “Taking Student Success to Scale” comes out of the national student engagement survey work that has identified the 10 best student engagement opportunities. These include mentoring, community service, and study abroad programming, among others.

While most schools make these practices available to students, NASH is working with them to capture these activities and credential them in some cases.

“We want to encourage people to take these opportunities seriously — particularly first-generation students who see them as ‘extras.’ We know that the students who are doing undergraduate research with a faculty member, who are in a learning community, [or] who have a peer mentor, are much better persisters,” said Martin.

Underpinning all of these interconnected dynamics is new research about student mindset, which leads to improved student satisfaction as well as completion rates. Student mindset dynamics include having a sense of belonging, being connected to the university, managing time well, and having “grit,” or “sticking with it.”

NASH is currently working on all of these best practices with the TS3 Network of 23 systems that are in contact online, on the phone and in person at convenings. Five systems at the forefront of these innovations are providing leadership.

The key, according to Martin, is to make this information available, but not standard. “We’re not saying to schools, ‘Here is how you do it,’” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Here are the proven strategies that are out there for you to look at this differently.’”