After almost 100 years of maintaining a status quo that was created with the traditional college student in mind, Waukesha County Technical College’s (WCTC) Vice President of Learning Brad Piazza and former Vice President of Student Services Nicole Gahagan jointly led a College-wide revolution to respond to 21st-century student needs. After analyzing the student body and examining disaggregated success metrics, it became evident that the structure and systems that existed at the College were not serving the students of today. Instead of pointing the proverbial finger at the students, the data made it very clear that asking whether students were ready for college was the wrong question; the paradigm needed to be flipped to ask whether the College was ready for the student. With low completion rates and the significant gaps in achievement they observed, the answer was clearly no.

Inspired by the college completion agenda and the Guided Pathways movement, WCTC’s Vice Presidents of Learning and Student Services dove deep into data, as well as existing policies and practices, to understand the student experience and explore how a college built to suit their student body might look. Throughout this 3-part series, you will learn how these executive leaders created transformational change through organizational learning, cultivated employee engagement, and facilitated a data-informed systems-approach to successfully design a college experience that leads to student momentum and completion.

In addition to the information presented below as part of the blog series, the authors will host a number of webinars that will complement the content presented in each of the blogs. Register for the webinars here.


Getting Ready to Serve Today’s Students

We have liftoff! Fast forward three years and, even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC) pulled the lever to launch its college-wide revolution. With the goal of changing the way students become attracted to and progress through the College’s academic programs, WCTC has launched a new academic calendar that features more but shorter terms and year-round attendance, as well as a revitalized model for student support.

Like many two-year institutions, WCTC was facing multiple, sometimes conflicting and compounding challenges. Our enrollment continued to decrease since the peak of the recession while the demand for our graduates by local employers’ continued to grow. Public funding diminished with every budget cycle while national, state, and county officials asked institutions to enhance timely completion efforts. And finally, our students’ needs perpetually grew while our institution’s revenues steadily shrank. As most colleges and universities can relate, we had to do more with less, and we knew the pressure to complete students in a timely manner would only continue to intensify.

In the past, WCTC would have purchased new technologies or thrown a few trendy “best practices” into the mix and hoped something would improve, but revenue shortfalls wouldn’t allow for this type of shotgun approach any longer. Our circumstances called for precision and planning, academic innovation and transformational change – but what would that look like and how could we pull it off? Those questions took years to answer, but you could expedite this process on your campus by turning inward and examining your student body and institutional outcomes through a curious lens.

Here’s what WCTC found:

1)      Who are our students?

Asking this simple question caused an awakening. For example, most faculty, staff, and administrators were shocked to learn that:

  • 85% of our students enrolled part-time (fewer than 12 credits per semester);
  • more than half of our students were over the age of 25, with almost 40% of students being between the ages of 25 and 39;
  • 20% of students were students of color, outpacing the racial diversity of the county by 12.5 percentage points;
  • more than three-quarters of our students worked, with more than 45% of our part-time students and almost 30% of our full-time students employed full-time;
  • most students enrolled in 6 or fewer credits per semester;
  • on average, students completed only 13 credits in an academic year; and
  • on average, only 5% completed 30 credits per academic year – what it would take to complete a “2-year degree” in two years.

2)      How do students perform at our institution?

WCTC reviewed data and disaggregated success rates by race, age, gender, and enrollment intensity. We saw consistent and significant gaps in achievement between part-time and full-time students and between students of color and students who are white.

Success Rates by Enrollment Intensity (AY 2017-18 Snapshot)

As the graphs demonstrate, part-time student outcomes were below full-time student outcomes with regard to both general education and technical course success (15% and 10% difference, respectively), retention (18% difference), and completion within three and four years (16% and 15% difference, respectively). This trend was consistent over several years of data. Given the high volume of part-time students enrolled at WCTC, it was staggering to think of how many students we were not serving well and the lost potential and opportunity for these students and our surrounding community.

Success Rates by Race/Ethnicity Identification (AY 2017-18 Snapshot)

The reality of our data when disaggregating for race/ethnicity was alarming. Regardless of the metric examined (i.e. course success, retention, completion), there is a glaring disparity in outcomes when comparing white students and students of color. Success rates are especially low for our Black/African American students. For example, WCTC is able to retain almost three-quarters of its white students to their second year; whereas, WCTC loses more than half of their Black/African American students by their second year. Of course this converts to large discrepancies in completion rates down the road, with almost 53% of white students completing within four years and less than 20% of Black/African American students completing in the same time. Again, this trend was consistent across several years of data. With the growing number of students of color looking to WCTC to obtain a college credential, we knew we had to do better.

3)      Knowing this, how would we design our institution if we could build it from scratch?

Dissecting our student body was eye opening. Considering their age range and work status, it is no wonder students enrolled part-time. Our students had families and were employed; they had bills to pay and mouths to feed. For them, school was happening on top of all of the other components of adult life.  Through surveys and conversations, we learned that students were motivated to complete their degrees quickly despite all of their other life factors. They weren’t necessarily choosing to go part-time; rather, we were forcing them to go part-time by way of our academic calendar. Two 16-week semesters with courses offered almost solely in a face-to-face format made it next to impossible for students with significant external demands on their time and attention to take more than one or two courses per semester.

This realization led us to ask, “If we assumed part-time status isn’t a fixed variable, how could we reimagine the way we provide instruction and training so it could produce the realistic opportunity for timely completion?”

 

We continued to dig deeper into student success at WCTC and at other institutions nationwide. What we found is that, like at other institutions that shifted to shorter terms, students who enrolled in the 8-week courses that WCTC already offered consistently achieved at least 10% higher course success rates and five percent lower withdrawal rates than students in 16-week courses. This fact, coupled with the typically low enrollment intensity levels of our students, led WCTC to develop an academic calendar featuring five standard eight-week terms – two within the traditional fall semester, two within the traditional spring semester, and one in the summer. Two optional four-week terms (winter and spring interim) create additional opportunities for students to gain competencies and complete graduation requirements, as shown in the diagram below. One hundred percent of WCTC’s programs have adopted this new academic calendar structure. The objective is to give students a realistic opportunity to enroll in six credits per eight-week term within the fall and spring semester and three credits in the summer, allowing students to complete 30 credits in an academic year and graduate with an associate degree in two years.

WCTC New Structure

Recognizing that an altered academic calendar alone will not suffice to move the needle on college completion, the entire institution has undergone a seismic shift in the way it does business. With the goal of empowering students to gain competencies and credentials in a more timely fashion, we have also guided the institution through various structure and system changes, including 1) restructuring program maps to elicit student enrollment behaviors that lead to timely completion; 2) diversifying course delivery modalities; 3) right-sizing program and course curriculum; 4) revamping developmental education and offering co-requisite support to accelerate completion of gatekeeper courses; 5) reconstructing students’ onboarding experience to ensure informed decision-making for sound academic, career, and financial planning; and 6) reshaping academic advising and other retention efforts to promote a proactive approach to student support.

We used Guided Pathways as the backbone of these efforts. Most notably, because of our realization that we must intentionally infuse equity considerations into our planning and operations, we built our own unique student success framework to organize and guide our work by adapting the Community College Research Center’s (CCRC) essential practices to suit our institutional context and purposefully incorporated equity considerations throughout these practices. It’s expected that operationalizing this framework and closely monitoring metrics associated with each practice will result in increased student success across the board, and importantly, closing the existing achievement gaps for students of color.

The data and student feedback were compelling. They told the story we needed to hear…that we were not serving our students as well as we could and, therefore, were not fulfilling our mission as an institution. If we wanted to move the needle on student success, transformational change was in order.

 

Our next blog (coming September 29) will walk the reader through how we prepared our college for significant organizational development to evolve from a stagnant, outdated college to one that is responsive to and ready for the students it serves.